"Can you go to Orlando?"
I was expecting the question. As I sat on my couch switching between the cable news stations feeling numb... again... I knew when I saw the caller ID, what the question would be.
My boss: "Can you go to Orlando?"
My answer came less than 1 second after it was asked. It was obvious the wheels were already in motion.
Boss: "OK. I don't think you'll have time to make the 1pm flight. I'm putting you on a 4pm flight I don't know who your photographer is or where you will be staying, but I'll call you back. Pack a bag. I don't know how long you'll be there."
An hour earlier I had woken up to my wife, who is a reporter, saying "Oh my God. 50 people?!" I didn't know what she was talking about, and when she tried to explain I still didn't fully comprehend it. Now, in a matter of hours I would be in Orlando.
Boss: "OK. you're going with Joe. We will need you in the 9+10. You will likely have to just fire up and go live from airport, there won't be time for anything else. I need your company credit card number..."
The wheels weren't just in motion, they were flying. I packed, showered, and my wife who was angry that she was not asked to go (a constant battle in a house of two TV reporters) still helped me iron shirts and get out the door.
I drove to the station, and there I was in the airport waiting for our flight.
There is never enough time. Especially when you're trapped in a tin can flying in the clouds. I quickly timed out my night in my head.
We land at 8:30. I have a 9 oclock newsast... but that is in central time. So I should have at least an hour to get the bags and equipment off of the belt. Heck, maybe we will have enough time to get the rental car and drive to the scene.
As I worked out the scenarios... "Excuse me passengers. We have a minor maintenance issue. Your flight is delayed."
We take off... we land... at 9:03pm. I have less than an hour, and this plane still needs to taxi, get doors open, and make it to baggage claim.
9:30pm. I arrive at baggage claim. I desperately check my phone for updates on the situation from police and the city.
9:45: Joe finds our equipment at the oversize luggage section. We have 15 minutes before we hit. I walk outside, and am immediately hit with 100% humidity. I am also helping carry equipment, and working out a script in my head.
9:50 Joe establishes a live signal. We simply set up in the corner of the airport. I start to write down notes.
10:00 Our first live hit in Orlando.
After our hit my phone instantly rings. It's my wife.
"You have sweat through your shirt. Don't show your arm pits."
I was too stressed to even notice, the toll the Florida humidity had instantly taken on me. Oh well. I voiced a script written by my producers for 10 pm, sent it back to Milwaukee, and did one more hit for the ten.
This is the definition of hitting the ground running.
The Pulse Nightclub is about 9 miles from the airport. The person who helped check out our rental car at Enterprise looked at our camera.
Her: You guys are here to cover the shooting?
Me: Yes, we're heading to the scene now.
Her: It's awful. My brother is gay. He was planning on going there last night but at the last minute decided to go to a club in Tampa instead.
Me: I am so happy he is OK.
That didn't take long to here a story related to the shooting.
We arrived to a sea of blinking lights. It was less than 24 hours after the shooting, and a perimeter of about 2 blocks in each direction had been set up. We parked our car on a block that was as close as we could get, and got out of the car to dead silence.
Joe and I noticed there were some people walking around. Most simply wanted to check out the scene that had been on their TV's all day, some had friends or family members who they did not know if were inside. Joe and I asked a few people for interviews. Most were willing.
On the northside of the club, mostly national media outlets had staked claim to spots. Literally. Their tents left no room for others to get up to the police tape. One tent already had what appeared to be an air conditioning system hooked up.
"Wow, they are fast." I thought. It was now past midnight. We still had work to do. Joe grabbed video. We needed to shoot looklives (pre-recorded stories) for our 5am show, write scripts, and find our hotel.
Our lodging in Lake Mary, was about 30 minutes north of the scene. By the time we edited our looklives, ate dinner, and checked into our hotel, and laid down in bed it was nearly 4am. I set my alarm--- for 5.
Our first hits for the morning show started at 6am (7 am local time). That gave Joe and I two hours to find caffeine, drive to the scene, and find a sliver of space among dozens of journalists going live to stake our own spot. I spotted this hotel on the way down.
We decided to give up on the north side of the road, since the big dogs like NBC, FOX, CNN, and so on would not be easy to work around. They come with full crews of producers and engineers.
The south side of the scene, was mostly all local reporters of mostly two man teams like Joe and I. Off we went, doing hits every half hour.
Our local hits were not all we had to worry about. I posted a video online for our website. I did a generic hit that any tribune station across the country could take. And then I did two looklives for our 11am show.
By 9am (10 am EST) the Orlando heat was just getting started. We were already exhausted.
I looked around for story ideas. We were in front of an ace hardware. I overheard the manager at first puzzled "this is going to cost me $100,000." Moments later he pulled out a brand new grill, and a tent. He began working the phones. Within an hour, he was handing out free food and drinks.
Across the street, I saw a man I had noticed was on CNN when I was watching from my couch at home the day before. He had come back for more hits. I thought it would be interesting to get his take on why he was so willing to share his story, why it was important for people to hear it.
Joe thought about combining the two elements into one story. Brilliant I thought, showing what everyone is doing to help, whether that is helping save a life, or grill a hot dog.
We didn't know what our second story would be. I thought about heading into downtown. We knew there was a place where people were invited to drop flowers and pictures. The night before, no one had done so. Joe saw a few journalists had started to gather, and a memorial was finally growing.
We found a mother and her young daughter. She knew one of the victims, who had played football with her older son. She was heartbroken. By afternoon, word spread a vigil would be held at the spot later in the night.
While still editing our hits for the 5,6 police came by and wanted to do a sweep on our car. Joe was not done editing. He moved into the heat, and found a lonely place to finish his work.
News of the vigil spread like wild fire. Thousands started showing up. By 7pm, it was a sea of people.
We quickly turned the vigil around, and included it in our 9 and ten pm stories while including elements gathered from the day.
Needless to say it was an exhausting day with powerful images.
I woke up Wednesday feeling rested. After our late lives we again had to shoot look lives for the morning show which takes time. But I was able to get a little less than 7 hours of sleep. I felt like a million bucks, until I walked backed out into the heat. It was HOT and MUGGY again.
I called the newsroom, and we came up with the idea to do a story showing people from outside the state how they could help. I called "The Center", Orlando's oldest LGBT community center. Those who answered were clearly overwhelmed, but organized enough to offer interviews on a first come first serve basis at their offices. They had been giving interviews non-stop since Sunday.
When we arrived, we did an interview, and noticed many people congregated here to help volunteer. Donated water was being loaded into a semi.
Unfortunately, one side of the truck had more weight than another side. With people inside the truck, it started to flip. Everyone ran out, and the truck stayed upright (Thank God).
The people we met were so accomadating even though we were from out of town.
For our second story, Joe and I thought it would be interesting to do a play on flag day. Flag day started with the help of a Wisconsin teacher. However, with the rainbow flag now popping up all over town (even on sidewalks), we thought it deserved recognition that it now symbolized solidarity for those affected by the shooting.
Editing stories is never as easy as it should be. 20 minutes before our 5pm deadline, police forced Joe to move our car that was parked (along with about 20 other crews) on a sidewalk. Joe had to move it into a garage a few blocks away. I lost my air conditioning, and a place to store all of our belongings.
We locked the camera down, Joe moved the car, and I did a live shot without a camera man behind the lens.
After the 5pm I needed to voice our 6 PM package. I didn't have a quiet place to do so, so we used an old trick--- voice into a coat.
Somehow Joe was able to turn the story for 6. After our live shots, we decided to meet up with a young man from Delevan who live in Orlando and lost friends. We would save this story for the next day.
We did our live shots from a local park that had incredible views of the city.
We did not know there would be pop up memorials in this park as well.
I woke up day 4 knowing I had most of all the video I needed for the day. We had a 7:30 flight, so everything had to be condensed. We had to turn 4 stories for the evening shows. The first one, was shot at Hamburger Mary;s the night before with the young man from Delevan.
I knew the last story I wanted to do, would be to wrap up the entire experience. I wrote what I called a "blank canvas script." I didn't pick out any soundbites. I thought Joe and I could pick them together. Joe nailed it. He knew exactly what I was picturing.
I snapped one last photo...
...filed our last stories...
...and flew home.
It was an exhausting, emotionally draining trip. And one assignment I will not forget.