By Michael Miner
Great Ball of Fire
Erupting from the earth with a fury that made the ground move, the fireball raked a 15-story apartment building that had been emptied minutes before. The blast caught photographer John White standing with his back to the soaring column of fire, but by reflex he turned to face it. The next morning his extraordinary picture dominated the front page of the Sun-Times.
It tells everything. The yellow flame towers over the crimson high-rise where senior citizens live. Two children tear away so fast their feet don't touch the ground. The photographer stood in the perfect spot, another photographer would observe, his lens speed and aperture just so. And he got to that perfect spot before the gas ignited, somehow anticipating the eruption and the panic.
"Nobody was hurt," White says with satisfaction. "Nobody was killed. And it's because of the fire department, the police department, and the people themselves--people helping people. We see the explosion and people screaming--that's the instant people see. But I see the wholeness of the situation, what is and what could have been. I see what could have been one of the worst stories of the year in Chicago."
White was coming in from another assignment the morning of Halloween when photo assignment editor Ernie Torres heard something auspicious on the fire radio. "You sit there and listen to fire and police radios all day long," Torres told me. "There's a certain call, certain tones in the dispatcher's voice that make you listen a little closer. It first came over as a regular level-one hazardous-material situation for a gas leak. That was enough to make me alert, but when they called for a level-two I paid more attention. And when they called in an EMS [emergency medical services] plan one--from experience I know that's five ambulances. They were getting a little excited, and you just know something was up a little bit."
So he radioed White, who at this point was parking his car outside, and told him to head to North and Clybourn. En route, White heard from Torres again--the police radio was now talking about a major gas leak and the evacuation of senior citizens. "I think he was there in a matter of five or ten minutes," Torres says.
White knew the major streets would be backed up and blocked off. "I used side streets," he said. "Because of the way I went I was able to drive within a block and a half."
Can I ask you what streets you took? I said.
"No," White replied. "Nobody asks me that."
He left his car with two loaded Nikons, an F4 and an N90, and an extra roll of film in his pocket. "One rule in photography, whether you're inside or outside, wherever you are," he said, "you keep the camera set for the proper time of day and for the proper exposure." He didn't look for other photographers. "You don't hang with the pack. It's like you know where things are. There's a connectedness you have with life, and I think the thing that saved me was that the last person they took out of the building was this old lady, a senior citizen, and they were escorting her to this house. I was watching and following them and hoping once they were finished I could get their names. Following her pulled me a few feet from the explosion itself. If I had been where I was a few minutes earlier I'd have been too close to the flames."
The CHA high-rise near North and Clybourn was evacuated because an excavation crew had ruptured a 24-inch gas main alongside it and gas was spewing into the air. When the earth began to shake, White spun, firing the camera that was in his hand, the N90. His backup camera, it was the right one here because it had a wide-angle lens.
I asked if he knew what he was taking pictures of, and he said yes. "Somebody made a statement that Sammy Sosa, for instance, can see a baseball at 100 miles an hour. You see everything in an instant. You're comprehending things all in an instant. Our lives, our work, our profession is about capturing an instant that's forever. So we see more than just a fireball, more than just a building, more than just a person--you see all those things. I don't know how you do that, but it's done."
If he'd been holding the camera in a horizontal position he would have lost the shot. "It was a vertical shot. I had the camera in a vertical position--it's the automatic position," he told me. He compared the situation to "life's audible call," a crisis demanding "everything you know" with no time to think. White has been a newspaper photographer since 1969. "It's like nuclear-war time," he said. "There are sometimes situations when you use nuclear-war thinking and talents, and that's when you squeeze that trigger. I was frightened as hell, because you don't know what's going to happen next. But you don't panic."
White teaches at Columbia College. He puts his students through something he calls a "quick-draw drill." Two students stand back to back, and when White says "Go" they walk away from each other, waiting for him to shout "Draw." Then they spin and shoot each other. "One is always quicker," said White, who can tell by the sound of their shutters. "But if you're quicker and you fire the shutter and it's out of focus, it's not good. Practice makes perfect. And I don't tell them to do anything I don't do myself."
The picture the Sun-Times ran was at least the second one White took when he just started firing, maybe his third. I asked how long this was after the gas ignited. "Not more than a second," he said. "When it exploded it was instantly that high. You can see debris flying. That was not 30 seconds later, and it was not 10 seconds later. It was the instant."
Kill the Goose, Save the Rooster
"Junk the League of Nations. Spike it!" commanded city editor Walter Burns, tearing out his front page to make way for this week's story of the century. "No, leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest."
And there's the ethos of The Front Page in text and spirit: preposterous news values served by a perfect willingness to do whatever it takes to get the story and then grandiosely misrepresent it. After all, Burns's scoop is his paper's gallant capture of fugitive desperado Earl Williams, actually a cringing innocent who sneaked through a press-room window and hid in the paper's rolltop desk.
The journalism represented in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's comedy is so shameless it's wonderful, its bravado so intense that there's no Chicago journalist worth taking seriously who doesn't feel a twinge of it in his bones. "Front Page" is shorthand for romance, and when the late A.A. Dornfeld--the night city editor of City News Bureau, whose force of personality, though not his principles, matched Walter Burns's--published a history of CNB in 1983, he called it Behind the Front Page. Given Dornfeld's example, there's no reason to blame the Tribune for making "Front Page" its trope du jour a couple of weeks ago, when CNB, with roots back to 1880 and a claim on plenty of romance of its own, announced it was shutting down.
The Tribune headlined a reminiscence by Peter Gorner "From 'Front Page' to the last page?" Yet Gorner began, "Lying was the only unpardonable sin. Virtually every other failing was permitted....But liars were weeded out. Journalists aren't supposed to lie." This value would have astonished Burns, who may have seen the truth more clearly than anyone around him, but strutted through three acts without speaking it. And when the Tribune published an editorial mourning the loss of City News Bureau--but not mourning it too fiercely; after all, the Tribune and Sun-Times owned it and could have kept it going if they'd wanted to spend the money--that editorial was titled "The Front Page fades into history."
The hell it does! City News Bureau preached colorless accuracy. It taught its rookies to be fearless, objective, and exacting. Dornfeld felt as passionately as any Jesuit, and Walter Burns as passionately as any confidence man, that his job was a calling. The big reason City News is closing is that the major radio and TV stations won't pay what CNB asked them to pay to keep it going. This is no time to be asking TV newsrooms to lay out a lot more money for anything, even an essential daily report of what's going on in the city. The network bosses insist that a product called news can be assembled at flea-market prices.
CNB is going down, but it's not taking the Front Page with it. On the contrary. Tune in your favorite channel tonight at ten for up-to-the-minute developments on that rooster story. It's human interest.
There's always been advertising inside the newspaper, but hasn't a line been crossed when the newspaper's delivered inside the advertising? Well, maybe not. When the plastic bags that protect the home edition from snow and dew promote Marshall Field's, nobody thinks twice about it. Maybe we should, but we don't.
So it was a small step for advertising managers last week to allow their papers to be wrapped in bags that on Monday promoted Aurelia Pucinski and on Tuesday announced, "Today is the Election. Vote Republican." John Lampinen, editor of the Daily Herald, picked up his paper in a Pucinski bag and knew viscerally it was wrong. "My initial impulse was, 'Gosh, it looks like we're part of the campaign. We look like precinct workers dropping off literature."
The Pucinski bags showed up around Daily Heralds and Tribunes delivered in suburban areas of Cook County. And they weren't the first. According to an account in Wednesday's Tribune by media writer Tim Jones, the Tribune had already been in the bags of state senator Kathleen Parker and state representative Bill Mahar.
On election day the Republican Party of DuPage County pushed the envelope a little further. The bags they paid the Tribune to put the product in not only said "Vote Republican" but also carried the Tribune logo. "This touched a real raw nerve," editor Howard Tyner told Jones. The Tribune immediately forbade political advertising on delivery bags, a ban Jones reported the next day.
Jones's account quoted Tyner as saying the GOP bag "was particularly unfortunate because it was a Republican endorsement and, given the history of this newspaper, it could easily have been misconstrued. There certainly was a time when the Tribune was predictably and unfailingly supportive of anything Republican, but that's not the case anymore."
The Tribune put its unpredictability on display October 26, when it published its endorsements in contested Du Page County elections. The paper endorsed a Democrat for the county board--along with seven Republicans for the board, a Republican for board chairman, and Republicans for sheriff and county clerk. The Tribune also gave its support to Republican circuit judge Robert Kilander, a former assistant to the Republican state's attorney up for retention. The Tribune noted that Kilander is under indictment "for the now-discredited prosecution of Rolando Cruz in the Jeanine Nicarico case." But though the Tribune had once asserted that no official involved in that ignominious prosecution "deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust," it made an exception. Kilander "is entitled to the presumption of innocence," the Tribune blithely reasoned, and anyway "no doubt will have to relinquish his judgeship" if he's convicted.
Forget About It
You wonder what the professors of history--not to mention logic--are thinking. Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor, explaining to the Tribune why every mention of three former NU basketball players named in a point-shaving scandal was stripped from the media guide: "We can forgive, but we should never, ever forget." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): explosion photo by John White-copyright Chicago Sun-Times; Ernie Torres, John White photo by J.B. Spector.