Don’t turn your back on an angry ocean. It is one of the many lessons I took away from my 1994 encounter at Kitty Hawk. Hurricane Gordon had just blown through and I was one of many surly journalists milling about the beach amid the wreckage of a collapsed vacation cottage. Actually, I was a 27-year-old news punk running around in a station windbreaker and feeling a bit outgunned. All around me, three-person network crews in matching rain slickers roved about with their pistol-grip betacams and looming microphone poles. I however was a one-man-band, on the coastal edge of my rural TV news market and more than a little unprepared. It wasn’t my first time chasing storms, but it WAS my first time at a network-level Hurricane Circus. Maybe that’s why I stuck to the edge of the pack, ignoring the crashing surf behind me as I watched the big boys strut their stuff. In my stupor, I made myself an easy target.
Why else would Mother Nature kick me in the ass?
A sharp yell kicked off the waylay. I don’t remember the exact words, but the tone of the distant voice snapped me out of my trance and I looked up over my shoulder. In an instant, I understood why strangers were shouting at me. An avalanche of whitewater quickly filled my view. As it did, I couldn’t fathom was how the Atlantic Ocean had raced up the beach so fast. But in the nanosecond I took the waist-high wall of tumbling seawater to reach me, I realized I was about to get my bell rung. I just didn’t know how hard it would strike, or how long it would echo. I tried to move. I twisted around to block the station-owned camera from the wave’s impact and wondered just how wet I was about to become. That’s when everything around me turned to foam and the rogue wave picked me up off my feet. Holding the camera in a death grip, I struggled to gain control, as the wall of water tossed me around like just another twig it intended to snap. Sand and saltwater filled my nasal passages as I cart wheeled in the Atlantic’s frenzied spin-cycle. I tried desperately to come up for air but the pounding surf planted my face into the sandy bottom and tried to rip the dying camera from my grip. My Nantucket Sleigh Ride had begun.
I’d like to say I tapped my inner Aqua-Man and rode that battered Panasonic into shore like an electronic boogie-board. But what I really did was suck seawater as the forces of nature gave me the Mother of all sand-wedgies. All I could do was hold on to the camera, determined not to lose what was most certainly a mortally wounded piece of recording equipment. But I wasn’t alone in the ocean’s crush. All those broken boards, metal shards and bricks I had been standing by were now part of that rushing river of sea foam. For a second I broke the surface and got a quick, scary look at the jagged lumber swirling around me. A piling the size of a telephone pole bobbed past and I prayed I wouldn‘t come to rest with a stick through my gut. Then the wave pushed me downward and I was break dancing underwater once again.
In times of great peril, time has a funny way of skipping a beat, slowing down to make seconds feel like several lifetimes. Thus, I had lots of time to contemplate my fate as I slow motion tumbled through the barreling surf. I wondered how I would explain this to my bosses, my wife, and my buddies. Mostly though, I thought about how I came to be swimming alongside an expensive TV camera in the first place.
“No sweat - drive up early in the morning, shoot a couple hours worth and boogie back for the early shows.”
I nodded in agreement, as my bureau mate packed up his briefcase. We had just finished a conference call with the news director, who wanted one of us to head to the Outer Banks in the morning to cover Hurricane Gordon. My colleague had a few years on me and seemed more than a little eager to pawn off the long workday on yours truly. I didn’t really mind, though. This televised storm tracking was a blast! Recently, I’d chased a few spats of bad weather up the Carolina shore, including the weird trifecta of systems later immortalized in ‘The Perfect Storm’. I had even covered some hurricane aftermath, but never the powerful storms themselves. That evening I left the office and went straight home, eager to prepare for the next day’s adventure. Little did I know just how much adventure I‘d get.
The next morning I rose early, kissed my sleeping wife and climbed into my mobile office - a thoroughly dogged-out Ford Taurus wagon with bright peacock logos and a fading white paint job. They called it Unit 11, and as I pulled out of my neighborhood, I hoped it would get me to my destination. It did. Three hours, two Mountain Dews and half a pack of Marlboros later, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and crossed over the Albermarle Sound. Entering Nag’s Head, I lingered long enough do a live report, thanks to the station’s latest addition to my newsgathering arsenal. In fact, I couldn’t stop fiddling with the shoebox-sized ‘bag phone’ sitting in the floorboard the whole trip. Yes, I was living on the technological edge as I idled in a convenience store parking lot and repeated what I had just heard on the radio into the phone’s receiver. Back at the station, the director punched up a frozen picture of me from the previous day’s story and daydreamed while I yammered on about sea swells and wind gusts. After some phony cross talk with the morning anchors, I signed off, dropped the news wagon into drive and pulled onto the deserted street. Enough talk - time to back up my words with pictures.
Trouble was, there wasn’t a lot to shoot. Since it sprang to life in the western Caribbean several days earlier, Hurricane Gordon had veered drunkenly all over the Atlantic - killing more than a thousand people in Haiti before ending eight more lives in Florida. But by the time it swerved onto the Outer Banks that morning, Gordon has lost most of his lethal punch. The most damage the highly erratic storm could muster was the toppling of five dilapidated beach houses; abandoned cottages condemned a year earlier after Hurricane Emily’s visit. At the end of a drunken spree of violence and death, the intoxicated weather system took a few last swipes before stumbling back out to sea.
In its wake, an island full of bored locals and soggy journalists slowly came back to life. As I drove through row after row of empty beach house, I wondered how I‘d fill my allotted newscast time that night without some human participants. Finally, I found a pair of shirtless stoners prying nails out of hastily boarded-up windows and pulled over. Fishing my gear out of the hatchback, I wondered for the first time that day why I’d dress so casually. Baggy khaki pants, a denim shirt and freebie windbreaker were all that protected me from the weather, which despite Gordon’s hasty exit, remained quite foul. Soon, stinging rain peppered the back of my neck as I looked down into the upturned viewfinder of my precious S-VHS camera. Above me, the two locals wrestled a warped ply-board off a window frame.
“So much for Gordo, eh dude?” - one chortled through a mouthful of chewing tobacco. I smiled and nodded silently, grateful to capture some usable nat sound and hoping he wouldn‘t hurl wad of tobacco spit my way. I glanced at the red tally light in my viewfinder. Recording. It had already been a long, rain-filled morning behind the wheel and I was glad to finally pull the trigger. As I closed in on a tighter shot, the erstwhile carpenter spoke again.
“Radio says there’s a dozen houses knocked down in Kitty Hawk.”
If he was trying to get rid of me, it worked. Before he could twist one more nail from its plywood home, I was back in Unit 11, unfolding a map and sputtering up the coastline. Five miles later, I entered the town where two bicycle makers changed the world nearly a century earlier. However, as I passed the turn-off for the Wright Brothers Memorial, I didn’t give it much thought. I was late for my own inaugural flight.
Like Kill Devil Hills behind it, Kitty Hawk was dark, shuttered and seemingly empty. Only a passing TV truck gave the drowsy corner stoplight reason to do its job. With my other-guy radar pinging loudly in my head, I pulled in behind the brightly marked sat truck. ‘Virginia‘s News Leader‘ -- the logo boasted. Do it, I thought. It did, down the street and a sharp right into a crowded cul-de-sac, where I gulped at the biggest gathering of TV news vehicles I’d ever seen. Satellite trucks, microwave vans, news cruisers and unmarked Suburbans sat parked at crazy angles. Beyond the pack of news chariots, a group of local sheriff deputies stood in front of a string of flapping yellow tape. I found a space and got out of the car in time to see a heavy man in a billowing orange poncho lift a bullhorn to his lips.
“If all ya’ll people will wait about thirty minutes, we’ll get ya down there! Them houses ain’t goin’ nowhere! We’ll take ya, but the road’s washed out and ya cain’t go by ya-self. We got some big army trucks on the way so just sit tight!”
A rumble of indignation traveled through the crowd. Grizzled truck techs cursed under the breath and a square-jawed reporter tried to negotiate a better deal from the man in the poncho. It was no use. Mr. Poncho - whom I later learned to be the County Sheriff, would not budge, no matter what the stranger with the pretty teeth said. After a few minutes, the pack of media jackals thinned, as individual crews retreated to the drier confines of their spacious sat trucks. I had no such luxury though , and as I leaned on the hood of my faded white Taurus Wagon, I realized I had to something if I was gonna keep up with these high-tech Newsonauts. Watching the crashing surf beyond the row of beachfront homes, I thought about my heroes.
‘What WOULD Andy do?’ I thought. Andy Cordan, a brash reporter-photographer who had recently left my station was the ballsiest news-hunter I knew - a sawed-off tree trunk of a man who approached newsgathering like a SWAT team cop on truck stop speed. He’d been the top story every night I could remember, repelling down walls with firemen buddies, goading handcuffed strangers into on-camera confessions or ad-libbing a high speed chase while riding shotgun with cops who wouldn‘t even return my calls. Andy would never let something as flimsy as yellow crime-scene tape and a distorted bullhorn keep him from a story. Puffed up with young newsman bravado, I opened the hatchback and streamlined my gear. Closing the lid as quietly as possible, I held my camera down low and slowly faded into the background.
Big mistake. Those two words simmered in my brainpan as I sunk up to my crotch in cold wet sand. Having left the sat truck scrum two blocks back, I was determined to get to the collapsed houses first, before the scene teemed with competing camera crews. But the only way to do that was hoof it on foot behind a row of boarded-up beachfront condos. Trouble was, the beach itself was pretty slim as swollen waves crashed into the bleach-white seawall. Sticking to the boardwalk, I made my way as far as possible before having to abandon it. However, the surface I stepped on was only pea soup thick and I immediately found myself stuck up to my watch-pocket in soggy wet sand dune. As I struggled to keep the camera above the surface, I wrestled my leg out of the sandy quagmire. My mountain boots bulged in wet goopy beach and my thin khakis clung to my leg like cold, gritty Saran Wrap. I didn’t feel much like the mighty Cordan as I peeled myself out of that muck. Still, if I was to make it to the collapsed houses at the far end of the beach, there was no turning back. Slowly I righted myself and began goose-stepping across the unstable surface, as a National Guard army truck rumbled past a block over, back toward the way I came.
After twenty minutes or so of this slow motion tiptoe, I finally spotted the target. Up ahead, a crumpled heap of salt-treated wood, chipped cinderblock and splintered decking lay in the distance, flanked by three other vacation homes apparently untouched by Gordon‘s wrath. For a moment, I felt like some brave explorer, traipsing over virgin territory unseen by other humans. That’s when I spotted the unmarked satellite truck parked under one of the surviving vacation homes. Following the truck’s cable up to the cottage‘s top deck, I watched as three hooded figures leaned on the railing and fiddled with their network camera set-up. As I closed the distance on foot, I could hear their idle chatter. They sounded like old fraternity pals shooting the breeze at a college football game. So much for being a pioneer.
With more than a little sheepishness, I skirted the perimeter of the fallen beach house, hoping to avoid the attention of the cocky network crew perched above me. At least I can pop off a few ground-level shots of the rubble. Small victories, I thought, small victories. But just as I white-balanced my camera and began to roll tape, I heard the unmistakable rumble of a heavy diesel truck approaching in the distance. ‘You gotta be kidding me ‘, I thought as the National Guard troop truck rounded the corner and came to a screeching halt within three yards of my pathetic form. Seconds later, an army of matching rain suits poured out of the back, gingerly handing down their expensive cameras to one another and joking to Sheriff Poncho about the great curb service. Feeling defeated, I slunk away from the growing crowd and down the beach, lest anyone ask why my right pant leg was dripping wet.
Back in the tumbling surf, the powerful wave was trying to undress me. As the watery avalanche pushed my shirt up the back of my neck, I managed to surface for a second but still couldn’t make any real purchase on the sandy bottom. Spitting out a mouthful of saltwater, I saw a blue and red blur to my right - signs of another camera crew being swept off their feet and sucked into the watery vortex. Thank you God, thank you for not making me the only one to suffer this injustice. He answered by gratitude by pushing my head back underwater, but not before allowing me a glance of a thin slatted beach fence rushing toward me. ‘That’s gonna hurt’, I thought as I tightened my grip on the camera tumbling in the surf. It didn’t. I hardly felt a thing as I crashed through the brittle boards. Mercifully though, the fence’s impact slowed down my momentum and I realized this unwanted underwater ride was about to be over. Sure enough, the rogue wave receded a few yards past the beach fence, unceremoniously depositing me in a swirling tidal pool before quickly retreating to the sea.
‘I’m alive’, I thought as I lay there in two feet of roiling surf. Then I realized I no longer had the camera in my grip and for a moment, I regretted my newfound survivor status. Like a punch-drunk boxer recovering from a skull-rattling knockout, I scrambled to my feet and began fumbling blindly in the knee-high water. Mercifully, my fingers raked across the electronic corpse. Grabbing a hold of the handle, I lifted it out of the water and placed it backwards on my shoulder. As I did, dirty ocean water poured out of the camera’s insides- an unthinkable sight for one so used to cradling the machine with care. It was then the second wave hit me, an avalanche of implications washing through my mind and scattering all other thought. So I did what came natural. I cursed. Long and meaningful profanities poured forth as I noticed for the first time a soaking wet soundman fumbling with his boom microphone right beside me.
As I dropped every blue word the Navy taught me, I glanced upward and realized my misery was being preserved for the ages. For directly above me, from the safety of their top deck perch, the hooded silhouettes of the network crew hunched around their cameras and zoomed in on yours truly. For a split second, I made eye contact with the camera’s lens before turning away in search of higher ground. All around me, electronic journalists reached out to help me, but all I could see was the back of the National Guard truck idling in the distance. As I traipsed out of the surf, my brain clicked through several stages - from initial surprise to sad acceptance to unfathomable embarrassment. Vaguely aware of the other ruined camera crew behind me, I briefly considered leading them back into the crashing surf, drowning our shame in the Atlantic Ocean and giving the snickering camera crew above something to really feast on.
Instead, I pushed on toward the waiting truck, ignoring everyone around me and barely holding on to the electronic doorstop in my hand. Plopping one soggy shoe in front of the other, I slogged up the beach and felt the camera’s steely gaze on my back. Finally, I made it to the truck where none other than Sheriff Poncho waited, smirking as he chewed the stub of a half-smoked cigar.
“Ya’ll boys ‘bout had enough?”, he asked before chuckling at his own cleverness.
I wanted to tell him where he could shove his Boss Hogg cigar, but I figured a jail cell would be a lousy place to dry out. Mumbling under my breath, I hoisted my multi-thousand dollar boat anchor up in the covered truck bed and climbed in after it - wet, unhurt but totally humiliated. Behind me, the sound guy in blue did likewise, followed by a red-suited older photog with his own waterlogged betacam. As we all plopped down in agonized defeat, the truck driver fired up the truck’s diesel engine and pulled away from the seaside media circus. The drive took only a few minutes, but as we all sat there in stony silence, it felt like forever.
But it wasn’t. Ten minutes later, I arrived at my trusty news unit, still reeling in disbelief. I placed the sopping wet camera in back, fished a dry smoke from the passenger seat and eyed my bag-phone in the floorboard.
‘How am I ever gonna explain this?’ I asked myself as I lit the cigarette and dug sand out of my ear. Still not knowing, I grabbed the receiver and punched in the ten longest digits of my life. Seconds later, my news director answered the line.
“Yeah, Ron - I don’t know how to tell you this -- “
“You don’t have to, Pittman,” he barked back. “We just saw it on the bird! How‘s my camera?”
That evening, the footage of my impromptu waterslide dominated the opening moments of the ABC, CBS and NBC Nightly News. CNN aired it every half hour all day, even playing the shot of me pulling my dead camera out of the water in slow motion. However, it would take hours before I ever saw it. Once my superiors finished their cell-phone guilt trip, they told me to stay put and wait for another camera and photographer to arrive. In the three hours that took, I slopped into a nearby K-Mart, grabbed some dry clothes off the rack and ignored the strange look all the retail clerks gave me. Then I checked into a rundown hotel, burst through the door like a madman, stripped down to my skivvies and filled the bathtub up with water. Standing over the tub, I paused for a moment before plunging the camera-corpse into the water. Even though the engineers told me to do so, it felt as wrong as drowning your baby. While salt and sand floated to the tub water’s surface, I sat in the adjoining room and chain-smoked in silence.
Back at my station reactions differed. Co-workers feigned concern but chuckled to themselves as they opened every newscast that day with my soaking wet joyride. Many were still in the newsroom when I arrived there that evening. The Promotions Manager, a friend of mine, slapped me on the back and thanked me for wearing the heavily logo’d windbreaker he had fought so hard to purchase. The General Manager and News Director grumbled about the loss of their S-VHS piece of crap and acted as if I had done it on purpose. They didn’t fire me, but my relationship with them was never the same. My fellow news shooters treated me like a fallen hero of sorts and the engineers begrudgingly admitted I’d found a new, rather high-profile way to kill a camera.
When I finally sat down at my desk, a producer handed me a long list of phone numbers. Seems stations from around the country had called all day, hoping for a phone interview to go along with the incredible footage of my watery break dance. I called the first number on the list, but after the cheesy-sounding Phoenix anchor kept interrupting to ramble about his own storm-chasing days, I crumbled the list up and threw it in the trashcan. I didn’t quite yet know how to feel about the last twelve hours, but I wasn’t about to help some unseen blowhard showboat. Leaving the station, I drove my pick-up home where I had some ‘splainin’ to do to the wife. She didn’t ask twice about the camera, but seemed confused as anyone why I decided to suddenly go swimming.
It took me years to live down the notoriety of that day. But eventually, colleagues stopped calling me ‘Splash’, neighbors ceased their requests for details and viewers stopped asking where my surfboard was. Since then, I’ve moved on - covering enough floods, murders and Easter egg hunts to render my brush with Gordon just another faded memory. But the video lives on. In fact, it has become a treasured heirloom of sorts. Whenever hurricane season rolls around and some rookie starts talking big about their weather-chasing adventure, I whip out my tape and render them speechless. I even ran the video through an old video ‘toaster’ once, capturing the frozen image of me with a soaking wet camera on my shoulder and looking sourly into the network lens. That shot now hangs framed in my home office, a constant reminder that in this silly business, the worst thing you can do is focus on your competitors and lose sight of the story at hand. That, and expensive TV cameras make lousy swim buddies.