Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
When the report of the brush fire in the area of French Creek came in, I basically ignored it.
Brush fires happen almost every single day, I’ve learned. Throughout our coverage area, I’d say we get reports of at least two a day. And, 99 percent of the time, they turn into nothing.
But Monday was an anomaly. There were brushfires everywhere. There were probably at least ten in Montgomery County when we caught one reported in the area of Hopewell Furnace.
For whatever reason, our photographer Kevin Hoffman went out to see what was up. And when he got there, things were obviously worth a story.
That’s the set-up. If you’ve been reading what I’ve been writing, you know the story.
But the beauty of this medium is that I can tell you some of the things that made this such a unique moment in my life as a young reporter.
The 2100 block of St. Peters Road is the face of this fire for me. Around 9:30 p.m. Monday having watched the fire move steadily, monstrously eastward all day, I told my editor, Nancy March, who’d been evacuated earlier in the day from a different area, something that actually made her gasp.
“Those houses won’t be standing when I wake up tomorrow.”
Thankfully, I was wrong.
I’d driven through 2100 several times that day and, in the 9 months of covering fires I’ve got under my belt, I haven’t seen smoke that thick. It was like walls of slate between the trees, impenetrably thick. I thought about turning on my headlights a few different times.
The otherwise blue skies were darkened by the overhead smoke to the point that the few areas the sun’s rays got through, they looked a malevolent orange.
As I drove through, I saw families standing in their front yards, obviously discussing what their next move was. As I passed they’d briefly stare out at me with anguished faces.
I saw one woman stop her minivan on the street in front of her house then go tearing to the front door. Maybe she was getting a pet, maybe something else, but she was sprinting for whatever it was. Her van may not have even been in park.
It was all very unsettling and reminded me very much of Silent Hill.
Throughout the day, but especially in that area, I constantly checked my gas gauge. It was below a quarter of a tank and I wanted to keep monitoring it, not wanting to get stranded and have myself turn out like the people in this video.
Phone reception was terrible. Later in the day, as I was trying to give a report of what I had, I didn’t even get ten seconds into a call before my call dropped.
Joking to myself in the car, I said, “And that’s the last they ever heard from Frank.”
In that vein, though, I made sure not to let my mom know where I was. I knew she’d be less than happy about it.
Later in the night, I was going out to a press conference in Union. After watching and breathing smoke all day, along the way on Route 724, I finally saw flames.
Up on the shadowy ridge, a ball of orange smoke hung over flickering flames. It was eery and beautiful. And perfect for video.
After the press conference, I pulled my car off the road and into a field somewhere in North Coventry. Climbing onto the trunk of my car, I stood and held up my Flipcam. It was too dark to get any usable footage, but it was such a raw moment in the night, balancing precariously in stark silence on the trunk, staring at the flickering, red lights that were obviously a roaring, raging inferno that I’m glad I did it.
I spent the rest of the night writing up the online version of the story and closed down the office around 1 a.m. I thought for a moment about sleeping in the office but realized I was so tired after 15 hours of work that I’d be useless the next day if I didn’t sleep in a bed.
On top of that, I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
The following two days have been almost a blur. The fire is almost the only thing I’ve covered.
I more than doubled my Twitter following.
Monday, I started tweeting from the firefighters’ staging area because I couldn’t get anyone to confirm anything. So I just tweeted what I saw and what info I had. After a while, though, I stopped.
“F*** it,” I grumbled. “No one follows me anyway.”
When I returned to the office that night, my email was full of “…is now following” messages. Immediately, I tweeted about 7 new messages.
On top of that, I’m used to getting less than glowing feedback on the things I write. The internet can be a terrible place where people wish each other terrible things.
But today, I finally was able to slow down enough to check some things unrelated to the fire. And that included who mentioned me on Twitter.
One of the people that followed me simply said, “Be safe.”
It was from Monday when the fires were at their worst and when I was constantly checking my gas gauge.
It was the nicest thing anyone has ever used the internet to tell me on this job.
Sometimes, as a reporter, you’ll cover something that will for some reason make you think of something strange. The tenuous link between the thought and the event will make the thought somehow poignant.
While talking to Fire Information Officer Glenn Bell in French Creek’s office, I suddenly realized something.
“I’ve never been to French Creek before,” I said to him in the middle of the interview.
He smiled and I did too. Over his shoulder, smoke rose from the eastern edge of the park burning down.
I think every reporter dreams about what I call their “Hindenburg Moment.”
When the Hindenburg blew up over Lakehurst, N.J., Herbert Morrison caught it on the radio.
“Oh, the humanity,” is his line and it came while he watched the burning zeppelin crash to the ground. That event is synonymous with him and his emotion-filled voice. He described it in an honest human way and completely owned it.
For that, he’s immortal.
I’m not saying the wildfire still burning in the area of French Creek State Park is my Hindenburg Moment. I’m not saying I own it. I’m willing to bet TV is beating me out on it.
But I’ve never worked so hard and been so invested in an event like I have been with this brush fire over the past few days. And because of that, this is the closest to a Hindenburg Moment I’ve come to yet.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
One of the reasons I even have this blog is because of my editor, Nancy March.
Nancy came up with the idea of giving me a blog shortly after my experience of jumping into the Schuylkill River on New Year’s, something that can be viewed here.
The Elephant Man and I had such a time. - Photo by J. Strickler
Basically, after the silliness (and, quite honestly, the unadulterated fun) of that day, while discussing my coverage of the event, Nancy came up with the idea of having me blog about the various events I’m assigned that, outside of my job, I’d never go to.
Of course, the day she gave me her idea for my blog was also the day she floated the idea of having me cover the local cheese festival or something along those lines.
Luckily, that particular event did not come to pass.
Instead, one of the more recent events I covered that I’d normally not be caught dead at was the Mercury-sponsored bridal show at the Sunnybrook Ballroom.
I don’t think I’ve dreaded or been as nervous in anticipation of something I’ve covered. That includes the night I came flying into Pottstown on reports of some guy spraying .40 bullets around his block.
I was less keen on walking into a room full of flowers than possibly catching a bullet with my face.
PICTURED: Less stressful than looking at wedding dresses.
It was a bright Sunday when I pulled into Sunnybrook’s parking lot. What I quickly noticed was that in the flock of people in the parking lot, there was just one guy other than me.
That guy was the parking attendant. He was staying outside.
A lot of friends said I should be glad to be amongst so many women.
But my real problem was coming from the fact that I was in a place that no man ever would go of his own volition. This is not a pick-up bar. This is a place where frills and pastel colors live.
On top of that, I am naturally pretty shy. Approaching strangers to talk about themselves isn’t easy for me, which is obviously not a benefit in this line of work.
Inside, the bridal show itself was great. By all accounts, it went very well and those coming did what they needed to do: the vendors sold their products or services and the brides-to-be got what products and services they needed. All the while, everyone was standing in a sharp-looking, historic venue.
It was great for all involved. I just had some extenuating circumstances.
I made sure to have my press pass displayed at my hip and my notebook in hand. My main concern was to not look creepy. As Evan Brandt told me once, part of reporting is “looking like you belong.” So I made sure that everyone that happened to even take a passing glance knew that I was there as a REPORTER.
As such, I was constantly writing in my reporter’s pad. I wrote down everything I saw, heard, smelled, everything. I took some of the most detailed notes of my life. Even when I’d exhausted the things that could possibly be even tenuously pertinent to the story, I continued writing such nonsense as, “My back itches,” “That Lionel Ritchie can sing,” and “Will Katy Perry ever love me as much as I do her?”
Any second that I was just standing there, I felt eyes on me.
“What is that scruffy guy doing standing alone next to the scented candles and mini-cupcakes?”
That reminds me: I also forgot to shave, the one thing I promised myself I’d do the night before to at least help me look less like Gary Heidnik-esque.
But I forgot, so I stood there with my 8 o’clock shadow, sweating it.
The most awkward moment was trying to find a prospective bride to interview for the story and, more importantly and more creepily, for video for the website.
There is an awkwardness that, in this era of .xxx websites, goes with a man asking a woman if he can take video of her for a website. It’s unavoidable and more than once I’ve been forced to explain, “It’s not for that kind of site.”
Facing that adversity, I set out to find the right person.
I’d already taken lots of video, too much video, of the various vendors there. That was easy. First, they were stuck at their tables alone, captive. Second, they wanted to talk. It was good advertising for them.
But talking to the table-less was a different prospect and required a different strategy.
Quickly, I found myself in the mindset of a lion (or lioness? Who goes out to hunt?) on the Serengeti. I scanned the room looking for a young woman taking in the scene that wasn’t with a large group, a bride separated from the herd like an unfortunate wildebeest.
Now, that mindset can be construed as creepy. But, of course, I was looking to interview, not eat.
By talking to someone with just one companion or alone, it was easier to approach them, rather than fight through six or seven people vying for one soon-to-be-bride’s attention. Additionally, the person might be more inclined to talk if they don’t feel as if they’re holding up an entire group.
After finding two women that were nice enough to talk that also gave some good quotes, I took one last look around, was satisfied that I had everything I needed, and got out.
For as nerve-wracking as covering the show was, the article I wrote turned out well. I had an abundance of information, pretty good video and enough angles to actually keep myself entertained writing the article on a slow Sunday night. It actually became a fun article to piece together.
And that’s why I go out to these things (outside of being explicitly told to by my bosses). In general, the stories that I’m most nervous to go out and get turn into some of the best.
So I looked like a creeper for an hour or two. I got a decent clip out of it.
It was worth the sweat.