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My coverage of a building collapse

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Early on the morning of October 21, 2012, a portion of the clubhouse of a local apartment complex collapsed. Upwards of 100 partygoers were packed in a penthouse apartment in the second story clubhouse when the floor caved in. Miraculously, there were no life-threatening injuries, but 55 people were injured (initial estimate was 30-35) and 12 of them were transported by ambulance to local hospitals. I covered the event for the local paper. Because the images have been licensed I can't post them here, but there is a link to the gallery at the bottom of this post.

It is not always easy to cover events like this, you don't want your presence or coverage to interfere or to exacerbate the grief of victims, their families, or their friends. The reason for covering events like this is that the story should be told. People need to know what happened. Individuals and society as a whole need to be able to form opinions about what happened and decide if action needs to be taken to prevent similar incidents in the future. It is easy to write "this is what happened," but when you show what happened you make the event more comprehendible to people and push them to form opinions.

Tech details: I tried to balance my coverage so I would be out of the way but still tell the story. To do this, I shot this with a 300 2.8 IS (480 mm equivalent on a 7D) on a monopod, a 17-40 f/4 L, a 70-200 2.8 L, a 5D2, a 7D, and a 580 EX II. The long lens allowed me to be far back, but after cropping let me get close enough to the action. The wide allowed me to show the scene as a whole and be ready if the action came to me, and the 70-200 allowed me to cover mid-range action such as ambulances being loaded and a first aid being rendered to a non-critical patient. Although there were hundreds of strobes and many spotlights, darkness was a major problem; I had manually focus and keep my ISO between 5,000 and 12,800.

What happened: I first heard there was a building collapse around 1:30 am. I grabbed my gear and 2 clean cards and ran out the door. In addition to my camera gear, I try to always bring a protein bar, bottle of water, and a flashlight to these incidents. You don't always know how long they will take so it is best to plan ahead. I arrived around 15 minutes after it happened, before most of the first responders had arrived. Parking is always a big issue at incidents like this in the city. You don't want to park somewhere where you will get in the way, be towed, or be blocked in. My solution was to go to a gas station 200 yards away and asked the clerk if I could park there. I was told they couldn't stop the tow company, and given a suggestion of another nearby bank to park at. I didn't want to risk being towed, so I drove to a neighboring gas station and asked the clerk if I could park there. He allowed me to but warned that towing might be an issue later in the night, but I left my car, grabbed my gear, and ran down the road. It was 1:45 am when I started taking pictures. Looking for parking had taken valuable time, but unfortunately I didn't have an alternative.

By this time, most of the fire department had arrived up and they were taking people out of a second story window with a ladder truck. After I had some useable shots, one of the people in the crowd told me she lived nearby and had heard what was going on. I asked her if I could park in her driveway, and she said I could. It would have been useless for me to have images and no way to transmit them if I had been towed, so I got my car and moved it to her house.

I returned to the scene and got some shots of two sheriff's deputies helping a woman walk down the entrance way and another of a patient being loaded in an ambulance. The patient was far away and I shot the loading procedure. I didn't want the patient to be identifiable, I wanted this to be about the incident and not any one individual. Another patient was loaded a few yards away from I was standing, but I chose not to shoot them because they might be able to see me and I didn't want to add to their stress level. There was no defined perimeter, but I chose to stay on the edge of the scene where I could get good shots but wouldn't be in the way. One of the paper's reporters arrived on scene and was able to get in touch with an editor. The next hour was similar, people being evacuated, triaged, and transported or released. Eventually, after a cameraman from a local TV station decided to walk in to the middle of scene, the police established a perimeter and put up crime scene tape, pushing me back.

After that, my night was more or less finished with one notable exception. A girl walked up to 2 other journalists and me with a blanket covering her clothes and wearing mis-matched shoes. Her name was Queen and she said that she was in the building when the floor collapsed and had fallen through the hole. She seemed a little in shock and described falling through the floor as 'like something out of Final Destination.' She was not injured beyond some stiffness in one of her legs, but said she lost her keys, wallet, and one of her shoes in the chaos but had found a flip flop on the floor when she was struggling to get out. Without keys, she said she had no way to drive home or get into her apartment. A police officer offered to call her a cab, but without apartment keys or a wallet, Queen said that wouldn't help. There wasn't much I could shoot of her or anything I could do to help her, but just listening to her story was an interesting experience. Eventually, one of her friends came and picked her up, she thanked us for talking with her and left.

Around 5 am, the police department's public information officer arrived on scene and made a statement, after which I went home. It was a long night, but I am glad I was able to provide coverage of the event.

Link to images:

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