I make my living on the evening news. Specifically, in video editing. Most days, I turn around a lot of the “local fluff” you are used to seeing: run of the mill stories about honorary banquets, a new wing of a college being dedicated or other relatively docile topics. Of course, even on calm days, my colleagues and I are working hard to bring viewers the most pertinent information we can dig up in the best way possible. Our newsroom is a living, breathing thing, buzzing with human activity, but not very different from the offices that many TV watchers go to every day to earn a living. Thursday, September 27th, 2012, was not a normal night in the news business. On this night, every member of the KUTV staff in Salt Lake City was thrust into the middle of a volatile, frightening situation.
Our evening newscast begins at 10pm, Mountain Standard Time. The editing staff, in addition to editing video, is responsible for tuning in all of our live shots; making sure the reporters in the field make it on TV with their stories. I was running the feed room wall, the nerve center of these live shots, on this Thursday night. It’s funny- even though a newsroom is a tightly knit group, news travels slow even from 50 feet away. Approximately 9:30pm, we got word that their was a man just outside of our downtown location with a bomb. This man was sitting on the TRAX (Salt Lake’s light rail line) platform just outside of the KUTV studio. To put it in perspective, the windows behind the main news desk look out onto this platform, less than 20 yards away. Apparently, this individual had phoned our assignment desk (the place that all information in a newsroom travels through, complete with many phone lines, police scanners and computer monitors) and told our assignment editor, Mehul Asher, that he had a bomb in his backpack.
News teams are a hardened, sometimes cynical breed. At first we made the requisite jokes, “Oh, some nut job out on TRAX is gonna blow up the building.” As the 10pm newscast approached, it was clear that this was not at all a joke; our witty comments were quickly cast aside as the gravity of the situation became clear. The newsroom sprung into action, every member moving about with purpose as though part of some well-oiled and practiced machine. The show intro rolled, and our anchor, Mark Koelbel, began to inform viewers of what was happening. A studio tech, Dak Harvey, moved his camera into position, training his lens to the drama that was unfolding outside. By this time, the local police and other first responders had shut down the block and were making voice contact with the would-be bomber. The man was perched on a seat in the center of the TRAX platform. White shirt, black pants, and a red bag that may or may not have been holding a high powered explosive device. The man’s hand clutched what could only be assumed to be a trigger; rigged, as they say, in “dead-man’s” fashion.
This was no longer just news; this was an unthinkable situation happening right outside of the KUTV doors. Everyone on the crew realized the potential consequences, but despite the menacing undertones, still knew that there was a job to be done. Two of my fellow editors, Jay Hancock and Aaron Colbourn, grabbed a camera and a cellular transmitter and headed for the roof of the Wells Fargo building (our newsroom is on the bottom floor). Meanwhile, I did my best to coordinate with our reporters in the field, as did Keira Farrimond, the 10pm show producer. Her efforts, along with director Eric Bullard’s, ensured that the viewers were seeing the story unfold as we saw it. We broadcast shots of the bomber sitting alone, looking strangely detached from the chaos he was creating. Cut to a shot of a fully decked out SWAT member moving in behind the pillars of the building. Back to the newsroom, where Koelbel expertly translated the events to the viewing audience. At one point, I swiveled around in my chair and noticed a police officer with an assault rifle moving through our newsroom on high alert. This was not a normal night at the office.
The news business is sometimes a grim one. Those that work in this field are exposed to the often gory underbelly of human life. I’m not trying to be dramatic, it’s simply the truth. Sometimes we talk and act very callous towards dire situations. It’s terrible to admit, but you can only see so much human drama before you begin cracking jokes to mask the disgust and sadness you feel. On this night, there was none of that. This was an entirely new ballgame; there was a lunatic outside with a bomb, and now there was an army of well-armed men and women there to secure things. I don’t think a single person working that night had ever been in such a circumstance. Our reporters and their photographers did an incredible job of hustling from their planned locations to cover the story. I in turn hustled to make sure they got on TV, coordinating their shots with our producer and director. Meanwhile, another one of our editors, Jason Smith, hurried between the roof, the lobby, and the control room to make sure everyone had the most current information, and to lend a hand wherever it was needed.
Then came the breaking point. The bomber rose from his seated position and began digging around in his red bag. There was shouting between the police and the suspect. A lone shot rang out, its echos bouncing off the now empty buildings of the area. I watched, shocked, as the man crumbled to the ground. Soon, we were reporting the up-to-the-second details: the bomber was down. Still clutched in his hand was the red bag. Just minutes later, a bomb squad robot rolled up to the spot where the man now lay prone. Soon, another robot joined it, and the experts who controlled them had peeled the bag out of his clutch. We stayed on the air until 11:30; a full hour past our scheduled time.
Sitting at the feed room wall afforded me the most intense perspective of the ordeal. Throughout the night, the monitors in front of me displayed every possible angle of the unfolding drama. I heard nearly every bit of communication between our photographers, producer, director and anchor. I witnessed the bomber’s moment of truth, when his body lay still against the concrete of the train platform. It seemed almost surreal to me, as it must have for everyone involved. Despite this, everyone did their job, and a damn fine one at that. From top to bottom, every single person in our newsroom did what they could to ensure those watching at home knew the cold, hard facts of the night. I say this with no ego: I have never been more proud of the people I work with. We all put aside whatever emotions, no matter how dire and sincere, to present this story in the best way possible. I count myself lucky to work alongside a crew as diverse as they are talented.
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention those that were directly in the line of fire. While our newsteam (for the most part) was protected behind layers of concrete and glass, there were scores of individuals who were not. I crack my fair share of jokes at the expense of police officers, but the reality is I cannot comprehend the magnitude of their job. At one point, a lone officer was within 5 or 10 feet of the bomber, trying to talk him out of whatever he was plotting. I recall thinking “I’m glad that’s not me.” This man had no idea if that red bag was packed to the brim with explosives; he simply had a job to do. The men and women who lay their lives on the line to keep us safe have earned every ounce of respect and admiration bestowed upon them. Emotions were intense in our newsroom; I can only venture to guess what it must have been for those brave folks who confronted the situation head on.
There is no question this event will make the rounds as national news. Rogue, would-be bombers are hardly a dime a dozen in the United States. However, in just a few days, it will be on to the next big, breaking ordeal. This is the way of the news cycle. Memories, on a national scale, fade fast, as they should. But for those of us that were there that night in downtown Salt Lake City, this is a life event. A memory that will not fade with time. I might not be in the news game for the rest of my working life, but it hardly matters. For one night in Utah, I saw the best of what this business can be.