Sunday, October 08, 2006
Photo from the News and Observer in Raleigh
If you've been watching the news the last few days, you've heard about the town of Apex, North Carolina. There was a massive fire and explosions at a chemical processing facility that was bad enough to lead to a large scale evacuation of about 16,000 residents.I live in Apex, North Carolina...about 3,600 feet from where the facility erupted in flames and noxious fumes. I'm the Managing Editor of a local television newsroom, and these stories usually happen to someone else. This time, it happened to me and my family. Now that it's over, I'd like to share some personal observations about the whole thing...When my phone rang at about 10:00pm, our nightside assignment editor asked me how long it would take for me to get to the station. A strange question..."what's up?" I asked. "There's a toxic cloud in Apex and it's heading for Raleigh." was the reply. "Dude, I live in Apex...what's the address?" "Near Schefflin Road..." That made my eyes light up. I can see the end of that road from my deck when the leaves are off the trees..."Jason, I'm going to the command post..." I tossed on some clothes and headed to the scene. I found our crew a few minutes later, Tim (our photographer) was shooting video and our reporter was trying to gather information...while Tim shot video, I put the mast up on the livetruck, called SatOps at the station and tuned in the liveshot...just as we were ready to go live, a line of 19 firetrucks passed us driving AWAY from the scene...that's never a good sign. The last vehicle was a fire chief's SUV. He rolled down the window and said, "Fellas, we're all leaving...I'd suggest you do the same...." Crap...now we gotta bust the truck down...drop the mast, roll up the cables and put away the extension cords. Our mast was slow to drop, so I was bouncing the truck up and down by jumping on the back bumper to hurry the process along. Finally, we were moving down the street to a gas station parking area. Once there, I again tuned in the truck and pulled cable. While the Tim and our 2nd photographer, Dave, were working around the truck, I walked around to where I thought we might get a better shot of the fire than the other stations crews...I found it, and oddly enough, the other stations photogs did not follow me. We had our first real "briefing" from Apex Town Manager Bruce Radford, around midnight in front of the gas station. He didn't paint a very pleasant picture! Phrases like Chlorine Gas, multiple explosions and toxic cloud did NOT sound good. We aired this briefing live...in fact, we hit the air around 11pm and didn't sign off with live coverage for 14 straight hours. As soon as the briefing was over, Dave and I began running cable back to the area where we could see the fire. We set up for our next liveshot there. Our reporter, Rucks Russell, did a great job finding a local resident who had been advised to leave, but hadn't since she couldn't convince her father (who lives next door to her) to leave. About 15 minutes after we aired that interview, Apex Police informed the woman she and her father REALLY did need to leave. She convinced her father and Rucks' next liveshot was an interview with the woman, in her car with her father, as they left the area. It was a great piece of television. It was at that time, we were told the wind was shifting and we'd need to pack up at that location and move about a mile down the road. I called my wife and told her it was time for her, her sister and our kids to get out. They packed up and headed out...seeking a hotel room...a task that would prove difficult. We dropped the mast, rolled up about 750 feet of cable and headed to the new location. Even though our subdivision was now 'off limits' I stopped at home quickly to grab a few sodas for our guys and headed to the new location. Once there, we repeated the task of setting up the truck. The media presence at the site began to grow...in addition to the 3 local TV stations and local 24-hour cable news operation, there were several radio stations now present, along with several newspaper, wire service and network freelance journalists and satellite trucks. Things slowed down quite a bit at this point. We could no longer see the scene from our position, so we had no first hand observations to report. A big concern became the weather...you could feel it beginning to change. The wind picked up a bit, the clouds got thicker and it started to smell like rain. About that time, the Mayor, Town Manager and several Council members arrived for the next briefing. There wasn't much new at this point. We did learn that 9 police officers and one firefighter were being treated for exposure to toxins, but that none of their conditions were critical. Still, it did remind everyone that this wasn't a joke. They promised to come back when our morning news would start at 5am...funny, none of us thought to tell them it didn't matter, we were all in continuous coverage. More media members began arriving and we all started wondering where we could get coffee...it was going on 4am at this point.We got through the next briefing at 5am...nothing new to report. But we were informed that the command post was moving to a location at a shopping mall on US 64, north of the fire scene. We were told that we'd be allowed to move there after first light, and that there would be another briefing around 7am, after which we'd probably move. Just as the 7am briefing got under way, the rain started. Just a light rain, but rain none the less. The worst part was no one knew whether the rain was a good thing or a bad thing for this type fire. Since they weren't sure what was burning, it could go either way. I tried to be nice and held an umbrella over the Mayor during the briefing. As soon as the briefing was over, there was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder. You should have seen how fast all the live truck masts came down! We had to break down anyway, since it was time to move to the new command post. The roads were all messed up (as you can imagine!), so I took the best way around I could. I left my car at the old scene, since I knew where the new location was and wound up driving the live truck to the new location. We were the first media at the new command post and they really weren't sure where to put us. You have to picture this...it's a parking lot in front of an old abandoned Winn-Dixie supermarket (so it's huge), and there is NO SPACE for media. I haven't seen that much fire equipment since an apparatus convention. It was quite a site. Anyway, they decided to stick us in Dixie-Belle Bar-B-Q's parking lot (something the owner didn't really appreciate all that much later in the morning!). So I set up the livetruck again, and had one of our reporters take my credit card to BoJangles for a little breakfast and coffee for the crew. I don't really like BoJangles all that much, but it was really good to put something in my stomach at that point. My phone rang and it was our special projects producer. She told me she was coming to the scene to relieve me...so I could go home and get some sleep. I reminded her I was a man without a home for the forseeable future and really didn't have anywhere to go, so I'd rather just stay and work (which is what I did). At our next briefing, the Mayor informed us the methods used during the morning did not put out the fire...and that it would be at least another 12 hours before the fire was out. So I called my wife and told her she'd be best to head to her brothers in South Carolina with the boys and girl...and her sister. I continued to work the command post for a few more hours, then headed to the station to finish out the day. Sometime around 9pm, I managed to find a nice parking lot near my subdivision where I could make a short trip through the woods and get to a street a long way from my house...I walked about a mile or so and finally made it to the house around 9:30. It was an interesting walk...a lot of lights were on, but there was no indication anyone was home. I got into the house and let the dogs out...I continued to work the phones overnight and thru the morning on Saturday. I got a few hours sleep, but not much. Early Saturday morning, they opened the streets and let folks come home. By noon, you would have never known there had been an evacuation.