HUNTINGTON, Utah — Sometimes, pictures change everything.
After all, that's the very nature of television; pictures tell the story. Without them, you might as well be writing a newspaper article, or doing a radio program. For the past five days, since our crew arrived on the scene in Huntington, Utah to cover the six trapped miners, we have had beautiful pictures. We have been able to show helicopter aerials of the mine and the mountain in which it is located; we have shown candlelight vigils held by the families, friends and communities; we have even gotten unprecedented access to inside the Crandall Canyon Mine where six men are either waiting to be rescued … or their bodies recovered.
As a producer who has been on this story from Day 1, I have been more absorbed by the quality of this scenic video than anything else. Every morning at 4 a.m. when I walk into our camp at the Command Post just miles from the mine, I dump my bag in the satellite truck and start poring over the tapes from the night before; what's new, what's the best video, what can I used in my first liveshot.
The business of making television often obscures the emotion of the story itself. When I first arrived in Utah, I was frankly too exhausted to absorb the fact that six men were trapped more than 1,500 feet underground and there would be no guarantees of getting them out. Our crew had just flown in from Minnesota where we had worked a 14-hour shift covering the Minneapolis bridge collapse, hopped a plane that evening and arrived in Salt Lake City at midnight - only to wait one hour for our gear, fight for a hard-to-come-by rental car, and drive three hours to the mine do be on the air in 45 minutes. Another 14-hour shift followed. As heartless as it sounds, I was apathetic to six strangers I did not know for sure were dead, and I was already anaesthetized by the five confirmed dead I had left on the Minneapolis bridge.
But the faceless strangers trapped in the mine who had only been a story became people for the first time early Friday morning.
As per what had become my usual routine, I walked into the truck in the early morning, stashed my briefcase under the beta decks and sorted through the latest tapes. That day I was particularly lucky to have a phone and a computer as our crack engineer, Patrick Muskopf, had wired us up with a communication system and Internet access. I saw that we finally had pictures of the miners in our New York office that we would be able to use in our reports and called for them for our first live report. However, the way they appeared on the computer were not as photographs but as "8/9/07 Miner pics, feeding rem 48, 21:30."
I am always uncomfortable asking for elements from the writer who coordinates the live shot in New York when I myself have not seen them. Sometimes, you just don't know what you're going to get - like when a tape that I had never seen before, but knew the tape number was supposed to have the Laci Peterson crime scene on it, instead showed Playboy Bunnies dancing around a robed Hugh Heffner. It happens.
In this case I didn't have a choice as there was too little time to get the pictures sent into the truck where I was before the liveshot. So when Casey Stegall, my correspondent, gave the roll cues during the live report to roll the pictures, I half-held my breath … until I caught it.
The miners stared back at me in black and white, each man's head taking up the full screen. In the photos, most of the men wear their uniforms and mining hats. Kerry Allred is smiling - a smile he is known for in the community. He is clearly the oldest in the group and looks thin and wiry, but his eyes seem to dare the person on the other end of the camera to say so.
The rest of the men are not so effusive; Carlos Payan, in fact, looks perhaps annoyed at the camera lens' intrusion. His hard hat is cocked to the side lending him a certain air of nonchalance. But his set lips and focused eyes betray this air - you can tell he is tough, a survivor. Don Erickson is looking slightly off-camera. There is something about him that makes me wonder what he was looking at. At first glance he seems to be looking straight at you, but then you notice that he has been distracted by something over the photographer's left shoulder. His soft beard and smooth-looking skin contradict his intense stare.
Manuel Sanchez looks worried - like he is anticipating some misfortune after the photograph is taken. Lips parted, head bent slightly to the right, you wonder what he might be about to say. Brandon Philips, only 24 years old, is the only man not in mining gear. In fact, if you were just to see this picture, you might think he was your daughter's boyfriend; your best friend's son; your nephew. He has a military buzz-cut and is wearing is sunglasses on his forehead, as if he just came in from outdoors. He seems to be putting up some kind of a front - like a young man donning an attitude of apathy well beyond his years and his experience.
Each photo gives each man not just a face, but a personality. These pictures make the trapped miners people, not just mentions in a press conference or names you gloss over in the paper as you sip your morning coffee. Each face has a life, a home, a family, a community. Seeing and remembering these faces is the best tribute we can give them. We can be witnesses to their lives, and to what can only be described as their tragedy.
*FOX News was unable to obtain a photo of Luis Hernandez before publication.
Nora Zimmett is a general assignment producer based in Los Angeles. She started at FOX in 2003 as an associate producer. She has covered Colombia's Civil War, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and, most recently, the latest Ballistic Missile test aboard the USS Lake Erie.