On the scene


    Every Thursday morning, we have an editorial meeting, and we make up a log of all the upcoming stories for the next week, and then we assign reporters to cover the stories. But there is always one entry for which we make no assignment, and that’s the entry in the log that’s just titled, “Breaking story??”

    You might think in a town as small as ours, with perhaps fewer than 12,000 people, there wouldn’t be that much breaking news. You’d be very wrong because more often than not, there is that story, and it happens on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes it’s just political news, more often it’s the weather and occasionally it’s a category three — a breaking news story.

    Monday morning was a category three event, and at slightly after 9 a.m. the phones began to ring. Our photographer, Jan Crane, and her husband, Kevin, passing by the Pier, seeing a construction crane had just fallen, grabbed their cameras and went to work. I was out the door within seconds but not before four more calls from other people passing by the scene who called us on their car phones to alert us.

    In the few minutes it took me to get to the accident scene, somehow the TV helicopters had already gotten the word, perhaps listening on the police scanners. It was only a matter of minutes before an entire armada, every news channel on your TV dial, began to hover over the Pier, followed a few minutes later by the ubiquitous TV trucks with their aerials that extend.

    I put on my press pass and started shooting pictures right away because I knew from past experience it was only a short time before the sheriff would rope off the scene and start throwing us out. You could also see this one was going to be tense.

    It was the posture of the firemen and the paramedics that said the operator, trapped inside the cage, was hurt, and no one was sure how badly hurt, but it could be bad. No one said it, but those cages where the crane operator sits are heavily reinforced to protect the operator if something falls or if the crane topples. If the operator was hurt, that might have meant something had collapsed or something had penetrated the cage, which lay on its side, under the body of the crane. The operator was down in the cage and couldn’t be seen, except for his arm. People around and above him were trying to cut him out with special tools, some holding an IV bottle connected to his arm, which might have meant they were afraid he would go into shock.

    Meanwhile, the rescue workers were trying to secure the scene, to make sure there weren’t any hot wires someone could touch and to begin to get some wood under parts of the crane so the boom wouldn’t fall any farther if the rest of the prep kitchen building, which was holding up the boom, suddenly collapsed.

    You could feel the tension rising. There were just wisps of conversations I overheard.

    “He seemed like a young kid.”

    “He seemed to be losing feeling in the lower part of his body.”

    “He was still trapped.”

    “They must have been thinking about the possibility of fire.”

    I didn’t see anyone with any kind of a cutting torch, just a portable band saw and the large scissors for cutting steel, the “jaws of life,” and a few large, specialized tools whose use was impossible to figure out.

    With each minute more emergency trucks and personnel materialized — fireman and lifeguards in yellow slickers, paramedics in gray-blue, state parks people in brown and TV crews in the everything.

    After an hour or so, they brought in an emergency evacuation helicopter, which meant they were getting close, and firemen kept pulling off pieces of metal, which looked like they came from the cage. Then he was out, onto a gurney, into the evacuation helicopter and off to UCLA, leaving exhausted rescuers behind and a swarm of reporters and investigators crawling over the scene trying to find eyewitnesses, and I went back to putting out a newspaper.