Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Adam's Story

Before I begin, I'd like to put this map of the island here so that this blog entry can make at least a little sense when I refer to all of these villages. I live near the star mound site in the Tafuna area:

I was awake that morning a little earlier than I planned on being. Rolled over, tried to get back to sleep. 6:45 AM, still have 15 minutes before I have to wake up.

Then, the whole apartment started shaking violently. Surreal moment #1. Could it be a low-flying helicopter? I wasn't that far from the airport. No, it's lasting too long to be that. Has to be an earthquake. Am I safe here? Is my air conditioning going to fall on me? Probably not. Should I be filming this? Yes. Maybe some people's instincts would tell them to evacuate the building, but not mine. My reporter's instinct kicked in and I ran into the kitchen and grabbed my new still camera and started filming.

Knowing that their might be a tsunami and that my apartment was not only on the third floor but on a village that was too high to get walloped, I stayed right where I was. I turned on Island Info Channel 13, which I just so happen to run, to hear what they were saying about it back at the station. "Get to higher ground, there might be a tsunami coming." Don't know why, but I really didn't expect one. Probably because we had had a tsunami warning a few months ago that didn't come to fruition. I just kept getting ready for work, expecting things to go back to normal soon, like last time.

Took a shower and got dressed. Dad called and has already heard about the earthquake. I tell him I'm fine, only one small aftershock. I go back into the kitchen/living room and Channel 13 has gone off the air. Why?

In fact, both of my channels and government-run KVZKs are off the air. The other local channels are still showing filler footage of Flag Day 1997 as always. I turn on the radio and all of our stations have gone off the air. Some sort of after-effect of the earthquake? Rival station KSBS is still playing music and filling the breaks with something in Samoan long enough to be important. A lot of good that does me. I try to call into work to see if I should be coming in, but the cell phone system seems to be overloaded.

I watched coverage of it on CNN International for a while. Reporters on a major news network actually talking about American Samoa? Really? Surreal moment #2. Soon after, the Internet, which had momentarily gone out, had come back on. I uploaded my video to CNN's iReport.

In the week since then, it's garnered almost 7,000 views, not counting all the times it aired on TV.

I'm watching it upload when a REALLY static-y call comes through on my phone. It's Joey. With the boxes representing static/dropped-out moments, it sounds something like: "▒▓░▒▒▓▒▓▓You OK?▓░▒▒▓▒▓▓Wh▓t?▒▒▓▓▓ Everyone here is fi░▒▒▓▒. Ca▓▓▓ou go se▓ ▓f Muana lef▓ ▓or work ▓et? Thanks. ▒▒▒▓▒▓▒N▓, you don't nee▓ t▓ come in toda▓.▓▓▓▓▓░▒▒▓.

With that, the call dropped and the cell network absolutely refused to let me call them back. I think that they must have also told me that a tsunami had come and gone, but hadn't elaborated on that, so I assumed it wasn't that big. Muana is Joey's girlfriend who lives at his place a few blocks from here. I was about to go over and check on her when I was hit by Surreal Moment #3: A CNN producer emailing me asking about my video and what I knew. I told him everything I knew, which was next to nothing. I went out and checked on Muana, who was fine. But I couldn't tell Joey, who was reachable only by non-working cell phone.

I went back to my apartment and continued watching CNN for my video and talking with CNN producers (!) via both email and Skype. The main one that I had been talking to mostly just wanted me to confirm or deny that there had been one village destroyed, at least two more underwater, and there were a handful of deaths. Kinda hard to do from my apartment. I gleaned what I could from Facebook and KSBS's 15-second English segments, and let her know about them (Most what she had heard turned out to be true).

About the same time, I got a Skype message from John, our morning show host that had been out sick that day, asking if I wanted to go with him up to Pago. As much fun as it was telling this CNN producer everything else I knew (nothing), I decided to go, especially as the tsunami warning had just been lifted.

John came by in the 93KHJ SUV with his family and picked me up. I told him about the CNN producer I had been talking to, and he told me about the producer from the CBS Evening News he had been talking with, his interview with them, and several conversations with a few other major news outlets. No, he wasn't joking. Surreal moment #4.

We tried to stop and get gas from the first station we came upon, but they didn't have any. Went to a bigger place a bit down the road, and got in line for it, something that's pretty rare here. John was on the phone with a CBS producer (!) and passed the phone back to me to talk to him (!!!). Moment #5. He wanted to know if I could send him any pictures or footage. "John says there's no power in Pago and we can't turn around and go back to Tafuna now." But he has to have footage RIGHT NOW! Do I know anyone who may have something they can send him? I go through my phone and give him the names of six or seven different people. Later I learned that he called them out of the blue and didn't bother giving a single one of them the slightest hint as to how he got their numbers, which was kind of awkward for them. Yeah, it was probably me who gave it to him. Hope you didn't mind.

The ATMs and credit card readers were down, so John had to borrow a little cash from me for enough gas to get us to Pago and back. We drove down the road past Coconut Point into the curvy section of the road in front of us to discover how everything was so shockingly different.
There...was...SAND IN THE ROAD!

I took lots of video.

Lucky for you, it takes too long to upload them, so I won't trouble you with scrolling past them. The amount of debris strewn everywhere grew higher and higer as we neared Pago. When we got to the Samoa News building in Fagatotgo, traffic came to nearly a dead halt. This didn't stop me from taking pictures and video anyway.

Finally getting tired of waiting, I jumped out to see if we could go any faster on a semi-legal side street. and took more pictures and video on the way.

Yes, that's a chair in the middle of the parking lot. There's actually a little flooded area off to the right, but that picture didn't come out right or something.

The Matai Restaurant, mostly spared from the tsunami, was the target of looters.

Firefighters cleaning up.

The first store cleanup begins.

An aiga bus, enduring symbol of American Samoa, damaged by the tsunami, then vandalized. Sad.

Part of the reason for the gas shortage.

Almost a month later, this boat is still there. I took two pictures of this and my camera's memory card filled up. Perhaps I shouldn't have taken all that video of the sand in the road. Turned out that this was just the beginning of the really heavy damage. I switched to my camera phone.

Around the time I took this picture, John's SUV had gotten through the traffic and had managed to catch up with me. I guess that's OK, because it let me take more pictures and notice things like how the piles of rubble were massive enough to make it impossible to walk along the road in some places.

Big chunk of drywall from what used to be someone's home or workplace.

Outside Pago Plaza, the building where I work. The security guards were standing outside the front entrance, but they let me walk right in.

Downstairs of Pago Plaza. A total loss.

I wondered if those steps were even safe to use, or if someone would stop me. Could I really just walk right up them, the same way I had every day for the last 11 months? Sort of. It involved a lot of carefully stepping around what was left of the National Park Visitor's Center, a lot of which ended up on the landing.

I made it into the station to find that, aside from the power and running water being out, it was surprisingly normal. The highest part of the wave had hit about two feet from the ceiling of the first floor. A small roaring generator was in the hallway, allowing Joey and Lupe to keep a very limited broadcast going on WVUV, which we happened to have installed an extra antenna for on the roof just a month before.

Joey was, as someone else put it, "in Spartan mode." You could tell that he had been through a lot, but was determined to keep the station on the air and the public informed on how to stay alive and what to do next. When he got the chance, he gave us all things to be working on. He handed me the station's main video camera, and told me that there was some really priceless footage on it, including some of the actual tsunami coming in. I was to capture this on my laptop for the world to see. In the meantime, I was free to run around and get footage of the damage in the area while John was to drive around and see how far the station's signal went.

I went about 10 feet past the door of the station before I found the first bit of destruction: The hallway below.

It didn't take long for me to find more destruction. The second part of this clip is the restaurant where I had been filming a commercial and and eating lunch just the day before:

Notice all the traffic that I was talking about.

An attempt at a still from some fairly busy video. Either these guys had won two bowling tournaments in a row and had decided to celebrate by fishing, or they had been looting.

I walked across the muddy debris-strewn space that used to be a park, ducked under a downed powerline, and found Joey's car lying in the middle of another parking lot, still upside-down. Entire SUVs were thrown about like toys, one with a coconut in its grill.

Dead fish baked in the tropical sun. Bay Hardware was now nothing but a concrete slab.

"POLICE! POLICE! THE POLICE ARE COMING!" a man yelled, frantically throwing his arms around and running toward a boat that had washed up onto the sidewalk 50 yards away. Kids jumped off of the boat and scattered. I grabbed all the footage of this I could, then asked him what was going on. He barked, "THEY WERE LOOTING! AND YOU LET THEM!" as if I hadn't just made it abundantly clear that I wasn't even close enough to know what was going on. I guess some people lash out at others when they're under stress. And some people are just jerks.

Still wearing my good work shoes, I sloshed back across the field to Pago Plaza. I checked to make sure John hadn't come back, then took a look at the actual shops downstairs.

In the middle of filming how the maintenance building was now mostly just a spot where the porch abruptly dropped off into the car-filled ravine, I got a voicemail message that I couldn't listen to, due to cell phone service still being overloaded. I went back to filming the reason we had gone off the air: The building's generator, despite being half the size of a shipping container, was now in the ravine as well (Sorry, I don't have any good still pictures of that, just some video that would take a while to upload).

I checked to make sure that John hadn't returned yet, then went to the front side of the building and interviewed a few survivors and the CEO of BlueSky Communications.

This end of the ravine was filled with even more cars, one of which I later learned still had a body inside. Across the street, a tow truck was pulling an agia bus out of the ditch, with a driver behind the wheel. An interview with him showed that he had not been the driver at the time of the tsunami, and that the guy who was had gone missing.

Having filmed just about everything close to the station, I went back inside and waited for John to return and take us all back. On my third try, I managed to hear that message on my phone. It was from the CBS producer, wanting me to call him back ASAP! I frantically tried about 30 times to call him. When that didn't go through, I tried another 50 times. I saw that I had a missed call from home, but couldn't get through to there either. Pastor Rocco's family (the same one from the previous entry) came by and were awesome enough to bring us some much-needed food and water.

John came back, having discovered that the station covered pretty much the harbor area and nothing else. But the important part was that we got to leave. John and his family took myself, Andrew, and Lupe back to our respective homes.

Once back, I STILL COULDN'T CALL THAT CBS NEWS PRODUCER! Had to find a landline phone, fast! Neighbors didn't have one. Maintenance guy Jamie had one...that could only make local calls. Called David, the pastor of my church (getting through on the fourth try), to see if I could use his phone. He's fine with that. I race down to his home in Illii. On the way, I get a call on my cell phone from my parents. Amazingly, it goes through fine. I tell them that I'm OK and a little about what I know, and who I'm racing to go talk to as I bounce over an unpaved back road.

I arrive at the Willis's house, thank them for letting me use their phone, explain to David how that CBS News producer got his number that morning, and start dialing like mad. On the fifth or so try, I get through. The guy is delighted to hear from me. He happens to be from The Early Show. I tell him what's going on, what kind of footage I have and that he should talk to Joey for a really good interview. I call Joey on my cell phone and do a lot of mediating between the two. Surreal moment #644. Lots of media-politics on whether or not we want the footage to be a CBS News exclusive. I get to talk to two other producers (!) who tell me to begin uploading footage from my laptop at home. Joey also wants me to make him an email-sized clip of the tsunami coming in.

I rush back home and set up my "media command center" (my laptop and two external drives on my living room floor, in front of the TV and next to the radio). I then capture THE footage that Joey had told me about. And it really is that incredible:

A lot of that night is an extremely fast-paced blur of media fame and photos of tragedy, but here's about how it went:

While editing that, I had started chatting with the CNN producer on Skype again, and was simultaneously exchanging emails and the occasional phone call that made it through with the CBS producer, who is trying to explain to me how to use their FTP server. Chugged Sprite straight from a 2-liter bottle because the tapwater isn't safe to drink anymore. I was also making several more video clips into something that I can send to Joey and others. In the middle of all that, I get a Skype message from Australia's Seven Network, who also want to interview me, but first I had to send them some pictures or footage to to air while I talked. Found them something, stopped all my other uploads, and did the interview via Skype videochat right there on my living room floor. That came out pretty well, even if it was heavily edited and most of the pictures were taken by someone else:

Wrapped up that interview and went back to the madness. Joey sent Muana over to pick up my clip of the wave on a flash drive. But before she came over, the CBS producer called to ask about Joey's interview with their show. Apparently Joey has gotten an offer from Good Morning America and is thinking about interviewing with them instead. And apparently they steal the Early Show's guests all the time. I started to explain how I really couldn't do much to change Joey's mind on that, but then I got an incoming call from Lupe who had seen my kitchen rattling on CNN and was wanting to know what was going on with all these media interviews (Did I seriously just put a CBS producer on hold? Holy crap, I'm a serious bigshot now!). I wrote down her number and closed my phone when I was done talking to her, accidentally hanging up on the CBS producer (making me a REALLY serious bigshot?), who called right back. Then I continued my Skype conversation with a new CNN person who said that I was backlit, could you please turn on that desklamp or something? Then Joey called to say that the clip I had given Muana was too big to upload quickly. Could I cut it down to a smaller clip for emailing? Almost simultaneously I had email exchanges with a different person from CBS who wanted to know if Joey could do the interview via Skype at my place? He doesn't have Skype of his own. Ran to the bathroom to brush my hair and straigthen the work clothes I had been wearing all day. Shut off all uploads again. Took a swing of Sprite.


Did the CNN International interview right here, in the very same kitchen/living room that I'm usually watching it from this time of night. Talked to the world via the teeny little built-in webcam on my MacBook Pro. Told them that there wasn't a lot of panicking, except panic-buying of gas. Told them that the destruction in Pago was the same sort of thing I had seen in Texas after Ike, just on a smaller area. I told them about looting and Joey's car. I told them everything I could think of. I had my moment on the world stage.


Back to media madness. CBS production team member is now also saying the two-minute version of the clip was taking two long to load, could I send a smaller one? (I guess they've finally learned how ear-bleedingly slow Internet connections are around here) At the same time, I had to scarf down something for dinner and wonder why my cable TV went out an hour ago. Get a call from my friend Alden, who had also been taking pictures of the cars in the ravine. He says he's been talking to the BBC, and they're looking to do a phone interview with someone who was in Pago at the time of the tsunami. I find Lupe's number in front of me and make her an international media star as well.

Kept going with that same sort of insanity until things started to calm down around 11:30, then I finally went to bed around around 2 AM. By that time, I had done two interviews with major news outlets, sent Joey about ten clips of footage, responded to about a zillion Facebook messages asking if I was OK, had agreed to do another interview tomorrow morning for Seven Network's morning show and still had to email back someone from the L.A. Times. Joey ended up appearing on both the Early Show and Good Morning America.

I finally climb back into the bed where this bizarre day had begun. So much, pain, destruction, excitement, and chaos rolled into a single 24-hour period.
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