Friday, July 15, 2016

20 Years

CNN photo

Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island.  21 from the Montoursville area, including 16 high school students were on board.  All died.

That night was unforgettable.  I was working elsewhere, and my phone rang late that night.  The assignment editor explained what had happened.  I was asked to go to Montoursville because our central Pennsylvania reporter wasn't answering her phone.

I got to the office as quickly as I could.  A photographer and I jumped in a truck and headed west.  It was a foggy and misty night.  The ride on Route 118 was frightening.  We were going faster than we should have.  Visibility was awful.  Glowing deer eyes were along the road, and I expected one to jump out at us at any second.  We made it to Montoursville without incident.

This was the most striking moment for me.  Even though we rolled into town in the middle of the night, it was like late afternoon.  Every light was on.  Every television was on.  People were walking the streets.  News of the tragedy was spreading.  No one was asleep.  Big story.  Small town.  It hit hard.  Very hard.  21 people from central Pennsylvania lost their lives, including a lot of kids.  Words could not describe the hurt, and it was just beginning.

We got to the school and did some interviews.  We shot some video.  Schools have crisis protocols, but this was huge and I thought the school district was overwhelmed.  Local media.  National media.  Students.  Parents.  Residents.  In all fairness, there's no way you can prepare for something of this scale.

The photographer and I gathered some solid material.  Our central Pennsylvania reporter finally stopped pouting over an earlier issue she was having with management and showed up to relieve me.

The question now was how to get it on the air.  The microwave link that got video back from the Williamsport office was broken.  The station's satellite truck was leased out to a station from Washington to cover Redskins training camp in Carlisle.  So, it was back in the truck for a ride to Scranton.

Once we arrived, I banged out the story in record time.  I was blessed to be working with an incredibly fast video editor.  We went on the air with a special report a half hour before our scheduled news time, followed by more material at the top of our normal broadcast.  I was very proud of our efforts.  When you factor in all the handicaps thrown in our way, it was nothing short of astounding.  I'll spare you a lot of the "inside baseball" stuff.  The view is always better from the high road.

CBS used some of our interviews, and one of them made the Evening News with Dan Rather.  I popped up in a CNN documentary.

Investigators said a spark and exploding fuel tank vapor brought down TWA 800.  Twenty years later, the missile and conspiracy theories are still out there.

I think of that night and morning all the time.  It was all so sad, and those images are still seared in to my mind.