“If you see THE MAY-DIA during the exercise - do NOT engage them! Repeat - the MAY-DIA are NOT ENGAGED!”
The SWAT Team didn’t seem too concerned. They barely even looked up as they finished pulling on those awkward yellow chemical suits. Ignoring my lens, they checked their weapons and pulled on air tanks. Through my viewfinder I recorded two of them hunched over a checklist. “Shoot local camera crew” wasn’t on their agenda.
“I think they like us”, I said to my colleague. Erik smiled vacantly as he listened to the cell phone pressed to his well-groomed head. He was trying to book airline tickets to Jersey and the reporter in him was certain he could find cheaper fare.
Just then a heavy metal click sounded overhead as the training compound’s loudspeaker hummed to life.
“YA‘LL GO TO HAY-ELL! I’M A KILL ’EM ALL - I SWAR! A hint of sarcasm bled through the heavy Southern accent . Whoever was keying the microphone up there seemed to be enjoying his new role as hostage taker.
“I’M A KILL EVER ONE OF ‘EM! COME UP HERE AND I‘M A KILL YEW TOO!!”
With that the five man Emergency Response Team formed a single file line and began shuffling toward the four story training tower at the rear of the county compound. But my eyes fell on the building beside it - a red squat structure with a no nonsense sign that read “RESTROOM”. Wow - I thought, an actual brick shithouse…
But it was no time to gawk. It was time to punch in.
It’s become cliché to say 9/11 changed the world. But it did, and nowhere more cataclysmically than in law enforcement. Now even deputy dawgs in the middle of the sticks have to sweat terrorism. Using funds from the Department of Homeland Security, men and women who used to spend their time setting up speed traps are now learning to deal with chemical weapons. Occasionally they want publicity doing so, and that’s how I found myself huddling in a ground floor stair well and taking on paint ball fire.
To be honest, I’d been warned. In our earlier interview, the training officer with the bushy moustache told my lens how the opposing agents would take pot shots at the SWAT team assigned to take the tower.
“We got some other surprises for ‘em too”,” he grinned behind a wad of chewing tobacco.
Now, as I loitered in the stairwell and waited for the team I swore I heard giggling from four flights up.
The heavy steel door before me almost ripped from its hinges as the SWAT team poured into the small room, pistols drawn, eyes darting behind steamed up goggles. Instinctively, I leveled my own weapon - a SONY XD CAM with freshly charged Dionic battery. They weren’t impressed. In fact, they barely issued a law enforcer's grunt as they swept past my lens and loud shirt.
I turned to follow the team. The pudgy deputy beringing up ther rear wore a growing sweat stain on the back on his chem suit. With every step he pulled hard on the air tank's regulator, making him sound like Darth Vader - IF the Dark Lord was a two-pack-a-day smoker, that is.
Bracing against the wall, I steadied up a canted shot of the already fatigued team trudging up the staircase. A wide shaft of sunlight swathed the stairwell from above, casting their forms in silhouette and lighting up a thousand dust motes so well I could count them through the viewfinder. This is what I’d come for.
“Come on, you can do better that! How about Laguardia? You got nothing for me there?”
Erik's New Jersey accent pouring out of my headphones confused me at first. Then I took a step up and peered out of the second story window. Down below, I saw the well-coiffed top of my partner’s head. With the air of a young banker, he paced around the entrance to the training tower, yammering on his ever-present cell phone and one still-activated lapel microphone.
I considered hurling a 9 volt battery at him, but I was running low.
“AIK ECK EX EVEL!”
The SWAT team leader barked orders to his men, but his gas mask muffled the words. The team seemed to understand tough, for their heads moved in different directions all at once - each member surveying a different quadrant of the heavy metal stairwell. I trailed behind, lens up and riding the iris as we all shuffled up the stairs. Trying to ignore the pain in my shoulder, I dropped the camera low and got a shot of the their chemical suit booties taking a grunt-filled step at a time.
Is this any way for a grown man to make a living? - I thought for not the first time. This crap was a blast when I was twenty two, but at thirty-seven, I’m beginning to feel a little silly. I got friends ascending corporate ladders, and I’m here chasing these goons up a tower. Country boys playin’ Cops and Robbers, and me still playin’ Tee Vee. Wonder if that little hillbilly diner down the road has chicken pastry today?
The needles on my camera’s audio meter danced crazily and jarred me out of my daydream haze. The clang of the oxygen tanks punctuated the cadence of the men's mechanized breathing and my on-board microphone recorded it all. Watching the needles dance, I judged the nat sound’s quality.
“What about Newark? Say I come back on Monday?” -- Erik’s voice crackled on the other channel, a distant conversation about a distant place. Shaking off the sound, I pulled out to a wide shot. As the men rounded the corner and out of sight, I stopped a moment in the stairwell, flipping switches on my camera and trying to think sequentially.
That’s important when you’re gathering news images. Uncle Jesse may wear out his camcorder’s zoom button every Thanksgiving, but the TV News photog opts for rock steady shots that will fit into tightly-edited sequences. Wide. Medium. Tight. It’s like storyboarding comic book panels in your head, blocking action scenes as they happen, mentally editing the footage as you shoot it -- a tricky feat when you’re chasing a SWAT Team up a winding stairwell and your back hurts.
Up on the second floor, the SWAT team fanned out, leaving the bright sunshine of the stairwell for the dusty shadows of the cavernous space. Through the viewfinder I spotted a mannequin on the floor, strapped to a stretcher that looked broken. A jumble of cardboard boxes took up one wall, but it was hard to see. With all the dust in the air, I started to worry about vulnerable electronics of my brand new camera. But there was nothing I could do now, so I checked the battery strength indicator in my viewfinder’s reassuring haze.
In front of me, the SWAT team medic advanced cautiously on the department store dummy on the stretcher. Through my viewfinder , I tracked him as he squatted over the mannequin and checked for the unlikeliest of pulses. Once he determined the victim would never again model fine fall fashions at JC Penney’s, he moved on.
“YA-LL BETTA GET OUT! - I’M A KILL EM ALL!!!
The voice from the PA speaker before now rang down from two flights up. It sounded even closer. I even flinched a little at the sound, though I knew it was only an out of town deputy holding a room full of mannequins hostage. The SWAT team shared my feelings, and picked up their surveillance sweep of the dusty space. As the dust cleared, the room grew bigger and I noticed the training sergeant standing in the far corner, a no-nonsense toothpick jutting from his bushy moustache. A look that told me not to point my camera his way.
Turning back to the SWAT team I readjusted my shot. A team member was poking through the wall of boxes while the others took a moment to check each other’s oxygen tank. I put one knee to the ground and my camera on the other. I was trying to decide which shot to go for next when I heard what sounded like a spoon bouncing on the cement floor.
That’s when all the air, sound and color left the room.
Every muscle in my body flexed as the white hot blast consumed everything around me. In the sliver of a second that it took the concussion grenade to detonate, sound eclipsed sight, dust motes became projectiles and I just about dropped a very expensive camera. As the echos of the blast bounced from wall to ceiling to floor and back again, I remained very still, trying to wrap my brain around what had just happened.
Flash Bang. A SWAT team's favorite tool of diversion. I'd seen (and felt) them used before in training but never so unexpectedly, and never inside such a small enclosure. The very volume of the explosion was painful. Though only a fraction of a wartime ordinance, the flash bang rendered everything instantly irrelevant when it erupted from the corner of the room. The force blew the helmet off the SWAT team member closest to it, the unmistakable sound of it's thin plastic shell skittering across the concrete floor providing a delicate filligree against the blasts painfully bass echo.
When my vision DID return, I froze like a statue, absorbing the sound and wind and light as it slowly evaporated into shadowy daylight, my eyes darting around the room for signs of injury and finding none. The SWAT team were milling about and looking at the floor, already piecing together how they'd set off the booby trap. Everyone looked pretty casual but the rapid breathing sounds coming from behind their face masks told me even they weren't expecting a concussion grenade to be stashed amid all those cardboard boxes.
Only then did I think to look at my camera. As I turned my head toward the viewfinder, the red 'Record' light stared back, a beacon in the dark that told me I'd be able to relive the proceeding moments ad infinitum.
Through the ringing in my ears, I heard the sounds of Erik's voice coming through the headphones around my neck.
"Hey Stew - you need to come outside and change pants?"
My drawers were fine, but I stumbled down the stairwell anyway. Nothing else I captured on camera would top what I'd just recorded and I was anxious to watch the footage. Over lunch. In a hillbilly diner down the road. As I stumbled out of the training tower, still a bit punch drunk from absorbing the blast, I realized that, for better or worse, I still liked my job - deadlines, flash bangs and all.