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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2001-02-26

That Phone Call in the Middle of the Night
By J. Pat Carter, Associated Press

Photo by J. Pat Carter/AP

Photo by J. Pat Carter/AP
I tell the joke --- in the past, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, when the pagers went off in the middle of the night, my wife would ask, "are you going to be okay?"

But now after seven years plus of being together, when the phone rings in the middle of the night, when the pagers go off in the middle of the night, she now asks, "is there overtime involved?"

That is why I like to shoot sports - there are no phone calls in the middle of the night. There are no pagers beeping in the middle of the night. Sports are clean, the occasional rain and mud. Covering sports is safe - the occasional clip by a stray ball or player. But in the overall scheme of life, no big deal.

But finally, with the crash of the plane carrying 10 people (two players, the assistant SID, a broadcaster, and support personnel) home from a basketball game in Colorado, it came home. Sports hurt. It was a big deal.

I had traveled around the country in the past five years or so - doing disaster along with the sporting assignments:

Oklahoma City bombing and all the follow up.
A few tornadoes in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Florida.
A couple of hurricanes.
Two or three school shootings.
The church shooting in Ft. Worth, TX.
Fires last summer in New Mexico, Idaho and Montana.

Other AP staffers jokingly call me "Disaster Boy." Other friends, living on the East Coast, claim they can track my movements by watching the news and seeing where the latest disaster is happening.

I was in Colorado Springs, babysitting the Texas prison escapees story, when I called home that Saturday night. My wife immediately said, "I guess you are off to cover the plane crash". She quickly explained that local TV stations were reporting that the team plane had crashed, on its return trip from a basketball game in Colorado. As I called the Oklahoma City AP office, the SkyPager brought the message from the Denver based AP staffer there was a crash. One of my cell phones was ringing - New York editors calling to say, "plane crash".

Photo by J. Pat Carter/AP

Photo by J. Pat Carter/AP
It was decided that I would return home as soon as possible - I would be needed in Stillwater, Okla.

I began to feel the little pangs of fear as we sat on the runway at the Denver airport, as the plane was de-iced for the second time.

I had shoved my wide angle lens into so many faces - I would say "I am sorry to be here but..." I could offer them the rationalization that I, once, lived in an apartment that was destroyed by a fire. I could tell them that I feel their pain, because I had covered the Air Florida jet that crashed taking off from National Airport in Washington DC during a snow storm. I could tell people that I had hugged a bridge as the 300 mph winds of a tornado past nearby.

But when I shoved my camera into the face of the Oklahoma State SID, Steve Buzzard, it was different. It was up close and personal - very personal.

He finished the Monday afternoon press conference and the word herders gathered around him and asked him the same questions again and again. He was leaning against a banner reading Oklahoma State. He was on the verge of tears as he talked about loosing the players, the sports support staff and finally he talked about Will Hancock - his assistant SID. Will was his assistant and friend. Will was my friend. Will was the problem solver.

Buzzard did his job. I did my job. And we were, both, hurting as we did our jobs.

Will Hancock was the guy, the photographers went to when a student manager continued to jump in front of us at basketball games. (Ironically, that student manager was on the plane that crashed.) Will was the guy who listened to our problems and gave us that smile that made us know everything would be okay. I saw Will in Sydney. I was half way through my second 100-hour plus week covering the Olympics. He just walked over shook my hand, smiled that Will smile and gave me his bottle of water. He said, "you need this more than me".

Will Hancock was the father of two-month-old daughter, married to the Oklahoma State women's soccer team coach. I wish I had known him better. At his funeral, we learned that he was a musician. He loved life so much that he would call home and tell his father about the rainbow he was seeing. God, I wish I had known him better.

Photo by J. Pat Carter/AP

Photo by J. Pat Carter/AP
On Tuesday, Coach Eddie Sutton, finally, had a press conference. Sutton has large sad looking eyes. But as I filled my lens with images of his face, I could not escape the sadness in his eyes. There was true sadness. Basketball no longer mattered.

I saw that same sad look on Sutton's face at the memorial. He stood there, alone, on the stage waiting for the memorial to start. The names of the ten killed were posted on the white background sign. He just stood there feeling his pain.

Instead of seeing nearly seven-foot-tall men fight for the round ball, I was watching these same men fight back tears as Coach Sutton recall his memories of the 10 killed in the plane crash. This was up close and very personal journalism.

Two hundred extra press credentials were issued to the Missouri Oklahoma State basketball game. But many of us just wanted it to be over. The photo shooting areas have never been this crowded.

To me, the most personal memorial at the game, was not the guy with his face painted orange and black (school colors) and marked with the number 10. It was not the memorial ribbons everyone wore. But it was on the taped socks of player Jason Keep. He had marked them "R.I.P. Little Nate".

We, here in Oklahoma, should have grown accustom to disaster. But this hurt - it was up close and very personal.

Tonight, I watched the team load on three jets taking them on their first road trip. As the first plane began to taxi, I just stood there and watched, as I said a little prayer.

We need to live our lives to the fullest. We need to enjoy our days. We need to love our people. Because everything we hold near and dear can be gone so quickly.

And I realized how lucky I am - when my wife asked one night, as I returned home, "are you okay?"

(J. Pat Carter, is a staff photographer with the Associated Press based in Oklahoma City.)


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