Getting the Picture  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 2001

Getting the Picture   

Television photojournalists shot dramatic footage at the bombed-out Pentagon. They were capturing history. They know they will pay an emotional price.

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     

Related reading:
   » Stories from the Front
   » Meeting the Challenge
   » "The cloud rolled toward us, and we had to run."
   » "We have a breaking story..."
   » The Biggest Story
   » "The simple act of getting to work was an ordeal."
   » An Unforgettable Picture

THE PICTURES meant everything.

And Washington, D.C.'s army of TV photojournalists got them--though it meant a push past fear, a quick call to a loved one, a daredevil drive against oncoming traffic--and, for some, an emotional price to be paid later.

Two of the first TV news photographers on the scene at the Pentagon were outside the building on September 11 when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the western wall around 9:40 a.m. They had been waiting to get inside for a press briefing, a hurried government response to the unbelievable destruction already taking place at the World Trade Center in New York. "I was right by the helipad," dangerously close to where the plane hit, says Michael Forcucci, a news photographer for 25 years at ABC affiliate WJLA. "There was the loudest noise," then "flames, a mushroom fireball that went up in the sky and black, black smoke," he says. "I called my wife and I called our assignment desk and started shooting."

Freelance sound technician Ted Giebel was on the adjacent side of the building to the north. "My partner and I had just unloaded the gear," he says. "I was waiting for him, just sitting enjoying the view" of the capital city on a crystal-clear morning. "Suddenly, it sounded like the sonic boom of a jet. I will never forget that. The concussion from the explosion, I felt it in my chest.

"A thousand things go through your mind. You think military helicopter. I thought of a ground-to-air missile," says Giebel, who freelances for ABC News' Washington bureau and has been in the business 10 years. "I thought for sure if there was one explosion there was gonna be another one and I was gonna be killed." But he grabbed a camera and ran toward the wreckage. WUSA photographer Bruce Bookhultz was driving toward the station in the metallic red microwave truck he keeps at home when word came over the radio that a plane had hit the Pentagon. He barreled down to Canal Road, where traffic was backed up getting into Georgetown. No matter. He drove up the wrong side to Key Bridge, took a hard right and just kept going, against traffic, watching the line of oncoming cars part before him, he says.

A police officer stopped him as he roared down George Washington Parkway at 85 miles an hour, Bookhultz says, but let him go after he promised to act responsibly. He got within 100 feet of the building and found photographer Mike Trammell there, already rolling. As soon as Bookhultz got the mast up, the CBS affiliate cut into network coverage. Meanwhile, WJLA's truck was stuck in traffic, leaving Forcucci on the scene with no way to get on the air.

"I just lucked out," Bookhultz says. "Everything in this business is seconds."

By Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen microwave trucks, a half dozen or so satellite trucks and some 50 camera crews filled a nearby CITGO gas station's asphalt lot and the grassy area next to it. A half-dozen more satellite trucks lined the street.

From the safety of the station, with no more flames lapping from Pentagon windows, Associated Press Television News photographer Bill Gorman pointed to a spot he'd staked out the day before, when he needed to get a good, clear, close shot of the rescue operations and be able to hit the ground if a second plane attacked.

"Standing on that knoll, you just realize that all those people are in there. It's very hard to come to terms with," Gorman says. "At this point I can't get around it." After 20 years in the news business, during which he witnessed the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Gorman knows how he responds to covering such events.

"The point I'm not looking forward to is the funerals and memorial services," he says. So far, he had been able to "push it right away because I don't have time to deal with this."

Bottom line, they know they're being paid to capture history.

Larry Downing, a Reuters White House photographer who spent 17 years at Newsweek, heard about the Pentagon attack as he was heading into town from his home in northern Virginia. He parked at a diner about a mile away and started running toward the scene. Downing jumped the fence around Arlington Cemetery and hiked to a point that gave him a sweeping view of the city, in case there was a secondary explosion or another attack. "It would've been a cool picture," he says. "In terms of my job, that's why we're here."

WJLA's Forcucci recalls his reaction to the cloud of fire, the burn victims, the makeshift triage unit set up in front of the building. "It was unbelievable we got that close," he says. "I think I was in shock, a little bit. I felt animosity." He knew, he says, it was best to just keep going.

CBS' Tony Furlow, at 39 an 18-year veteran of the business, says he knows that people in his line of work "have to pay a high price."

"Everything you cover has a different impact [on you]. Each story carries its own set of emotions," Furlow says. But, he adds, videographers have a buffer.

"We see it in black and white, in a viewfinder.... I look up, it gets hard. I retreat back to the viewfinder. It lessens the shock."

###