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Friday, July 15, 2011

15 Years

Sunday is the 15th anniversary of the crash of TWA 800 off the coast of Long Island.  229 died, including 16 high school students from Montoursville and five chaperones.

It was one of the most unforgettable days in my career, and here's the short version of what happened.

I was working for another TV station in 1996.  That day was marked by highs and lows.

The reporter who lived and worked in central Pennsylvania was pouting over an internal station political issue and refused to answer her phone when we learned of the local connection to the Long Island crash, so my phone rang late at night.  I didn't mind.  It was a good story.

I met a photographer at the office in downtown Scranton.  We jumped in a truck and headed west on Route 118.  It was a misty and foggy night.  I thought the photographer was driving a little too fast.  I could see the glow of deer eyes along the road, and I was praying one of the animals didn't jump out in front of us.  We made it to Montoursville without incident.

I was struck by something when we pulled in to town.  Every light in every house was on.  It was 1:00 AM, but there was so much activity, it looked like 7:00 PM.  No one slept that night.

We went to Montoursville High School.  The district had its "disaster plan" in effect.  I don't think it worked.  21 dead from one school district was overwhelming.  I mean no disrespect to the school district people.  The situation was impossible.

We did some interviews and put together a story.  Our pouting reporter and another photographer finally showed up in Montoursville a few hours after I did.  Another problem developed.

The station had an office in downtown Williamsport, but the microwave link that got the video from Williamsport to home base was broken.  The station also had a satellite truck, but in an effort to make a few dollars, it was rented out to a TV station from Washington, DC and was sitting at Washington Redskins training camp in Carlisle, PA.

There was no choice.  It was back in the truck for the ride back to Scranton.  I think I wrote the story in record time, and the photographer edited it in a flash.

Here comes another problem.  At the time, our morning news didn't start until 6:30 AM.  The story from Montoursville was too big to wait.  I assembled the production crew and asked if they'd be ready to go on the air at 6:00 AM.  They were a great bunch, and we did a ten minute special report at 6:00 AM.  I tossed it back to the network, and we did our usual broadcast at 6:30.  By the way, the morning anchor knew nothing about this.  She was putting on her make up or something and didn't seem to care about what we were doing.

In spite of all the handicaps, I thought we did a reasonably decent job.  It could have, and should have been done better.  I'm always reminded of something Philadelphia, and later NBC reporter Jessica Savitch once said:  "Do the best with what you have, where you are."  We did our best.

One of my interviews from Montoursville wound up on the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" that night.  Another portion was used in a later CNN documentary.

I'm sorry if this is too "inside baseball" for you.  On the other hand, some of you like learning about the behind the scenes stuff.

When you're covering tragedy, and your best laid plans are falling apart around you, I never fail lose sight of the people who have it worse than I do-- the victims and their families.  Thinking about that puts it all in perspective.  I could live with a disgruntled co-worker and failing equipment.

Too many died too fast, too young that night 15 years ago.  The heartache will never go away.