I have a lot of time to think while driving back and forth to Nashville every week. For some reason today, I thought of the night our news chopper went down just before the 10pm newscast.
It was Huntsville, WHNT-TV19 in 1994 or ’95. To the best of my recollection, our helicopter was brand new. It was a Friday night, the first night of high school football season. We had planned to use the chopper to cover as many games as possible but mainly we wanted to show off the first news chopper in the market.
I was anchoring the 10pm show then. Sometime around 9 o’clock we got a frantic phone call that our new helicopter had crashed. On board were the pilot, our Shoals bureau reporter Kevin Yodjas and Shoals photographer Matt Greene. When the call came in I remember the hush that went around the newsroom. There weren’t many of us inside then. The producer, myself and my co-anchor and the executive producer who was running the desk.
We found out pretty quickly that everybody was okay, in fact it may have been Kevin or Matt who first called us. The chopper was flying above downtown Sheffield or Florence (I think) and was above some of the buildings when Kevin and Matt first heard the sound and the pilot saying “Uh Oh”.
The pilot was skilled enough to put it down on top of a retirement or nursing home. Had they not been above a building, I’m told the helicopter would have just dropped from the sky. They lost one of the skids on the bottom of the chopper but everybody got out unhurt.
What I remember most about the night though, was how we covered it. The news director called the shots telling us to drop whatever lead story we had and go with the chopper story. As often as possible.
We couldn’t get a live shot via a microwave, not that Kevin or Matt were in any shape to do it themselves. Florence is at least an hour and a half away and I don’t think we had a live truck by that time anyway. We led with a phone interview with Kevin who told the story of how they had just passed over his house when he called his son to look up and see his daddy flying in the chopper. That’s when the pilot heard the sound.
After the first live phoner, we read a few other stories and then went back to Matt. And then to Kevin. And then to the pilot (I think I remember that right). We must have spent 15 minutes of the 35 minute newscast on our own chopper story. I also remember after we had thought we had covered it all, the news director calling and telling us to hit them again.
We thought it was overkill. But it was a story that only we had. Besides, what tv station would have covered it anyway? Back then, every newsteam in town totally ignored the others. There was never a mention on any of the other channels about the crash landing.
Matt and Kevin did a whale of a job that night. They were obviously shaken and the longer we talked about it the more they realized what a close call it was.
And you know, as bad as it was and as bad as it could have been, it was one of the things that got people to pay attention to us. At the time, 19 was still in second place in the market behind the historically strong WAAY. Interestingly enough, it was a bigger tragedy that helped push 31 to the top of the ratings. The tornado of 1989 which killed more than 2 dozen people in downtown Huntsville, was a factor in viewers making a habit of watching 31. At that time, 31 was the only station in town to stay on the air thanks to a brilliant plan to deal with such a tragedy. They had generators that kept them on the air and thus, was the only station anyone could turn to in the days immediately following the tornado.
Those were great days in the ratings wars of Huntsville television. There was a battle over who would be first with a satellite truck and helicopter. There were battles on the street every day over which station would get the interview or the story. The newsteams took great pride in their station and there was a definite feeling of ownership for all of us. I remember the day 19 first took first place. My news director met me in the parking lot with a cigar and a handshake of congratulations. We even had champagne in the newsroom!
Those are some of my favorite memories of my career in news. Great people who genuinely cared about beating the competition day in and day out and getting the story right. Our management team was terrific, our reporters and photographers and producers did their best day after day. And viewers tuned in.
And it all started with a near tragedy and the words “Our chopper is down!”
I know many of the people who read this remember that night better than I do.