By Ellie Doyen
The day my comrades at the San Francisco Examiner started respecting me as a photojournalist was the day of the gas line explosion.
It started like we were in a lazily-written, slow-burning news thriller. All members of the paper were present in the newsroom. This was unusual, because most often the reporters were out reporting. The crime reporter in particular, Michael Barba, was hardly ever in the office when I was. He was at the justice hall constantly. On February 6, Barba was in the office with his old-timey police scanner on loud enough for the whole floor to hear (an exaggeration my brain believes to add drama to the situation).
I was ready and eager to do anything and everything for the paper, but it was a slow morning for news. Barba relayed that the scanner mentioned a fire on Geary. No one seemed particularly intrigued, as apparently it is a relatively common occurrence. I tried to play it cool like the rest of the reporters as we listened to the scanner kick back more info.
Laura Waxmann, the education reporter, had pulled up the location on Google Maps to find that there was a small preschool near by.
I felt the community interest build, so I casually started asking my editor which lenses to pack. The Canon 24-105mm f/4 is my go-to news lens, but I try to break out my primes any chance I can.
Barba told us they were evacuating the area. Then we heard the words “gas fire” trickle over the radio.
That’s when I became a little more insistent that I would like to go. Canon 6D around my neck, full battery and empty cards. Worst case scenario, it’s a learning experience for me, the lowly intern. Laura said she would come too, it could be something.
I called an Uber, trying so hard to maintain my chill, but as soon as I exited the newsroom, I started running to catch the car. Laura had to run to keep up, and once we were in, I allowed myself to burst. We both started making calls. She was calling a hospital nearby asking about potential evacuations of patients. I called the pet store I worked at because it was only a few blocks from the fire. No one seemed to match my level of energy (manic excitement is hard to match).
We went over a hill and got stopped by police tape. The poor, poor Uber driver let us out there and we left him to figure out the traffic situation himself. Laura and I wordlessly split off to do our respective jobs. Laura immediately started looking for witnesses, I immediately started taking pictures of the literal 30 ft tall wall of flames (also may be a bit of hyperbole, but that’s certainly how tall it looked from where we stood). The tape kept us about two blocks from the fire, but still I felt the heat.
As I was taking pictures, a witness to the initial explosion started offering me his account. Something about the professional camera always screams “press” more so than the press pass that the reporters have to work for. I switched my hat to reporter and recorded his account and sent it off to my editor.
After the brief interview, I was jonesing for a closer look at the fire. I started running in any direction I could think of to get a better view. I want to insert here that I was wearing heels this day. I’ve never felt more powerful than when I was running towards a fire in heels.
As I ran down the middle of a street, I looked up and saw some painters on the roof of an unfinished building. Bingo. I yelled up at them to ask if I could be let up. Some said yes, some said no, but after a while of running around, I circled back and they had decided to let me up. I walked up canvas covered stairs, through a kitchen missing a sink, and out to a balcony with a collapsable (!!!) ladder leaning against the roof. I was hoping for a sturdy, fire escape sort of deal, but beggars can’t be choosers.
The man who let me in held the ladder as I climbed, questioned my shoe choices, then said “Have fun!” and left me there.
My heart was POUNDING, let me tell you. I took my pictures, used my in-camera WiFi to send said pictures back to my editor immediately, and sat down for a moment in awe. The painter/necessary-ladder-holder didn’t come back for a while, which I used as an excuse to simply marvel at the grandiose feeling of it all.
After leaving my roof, I got as close as the tape would let me. Then I got even closer. The cops in charge of the border accused me of being sneaky, to which I responded that I was an intern. It’s a must. By this time, other photographers were trickling in. I think we were the first to the scene because of Barba’s scanner. I felt as if I had already gotten the scoop and was sending the pictures back before others even got their first picture. Not to toot my own horn too hard, but that was it. That was what I was itching to do. Hard-hitting breaking news coverage, barely two weeks into my internship.
The picture ended up being my first front page. Someone hung it up in our office on a big, blank wall. I cried. Barba told me much later that the fire was when he knew that I had *it*. He was the one that hung the image in the office, because it inspired him too.