The TV picture shook and vibrated.
"Here comes another aftershock," said Kent Shocknek, KNBC Channel 4's early morning anchorman. "I'm going to get under the desk. I apologize for the theatrics."
Not The Big One, but big enough.
And those weren't theatrics by Shocknek (the irony of his name was inescapable) Thursday morning, but genuine, understandable fear and good sense.
Channel 4 viewers must be getting used to bizarre TV pictures of the KNBC news staff in crisis, the last coming Aug. 19 when consumer reporter David Horowitz was briefly held hostage during a live newscast by a man brandishing a real-looking toy revolver.
But this--an anchorman seeking cover from a significant earthquake tremor--was no less than astounding. It was also absolutely terrifying. And no sooner had Shocknek returned to the screen--and begun reporting quake data, along with the station's equally shaken weatherman, Christopher Nance--than the scene was repeated.
"Here we go," Shocknek said. "Under the desk. Let's get under the desk. . . . Cameramen--under the desk!"
As Shocknek and Nance disappeared from view and the set again shook, viewers saw a long shot of the studio showing the empty anchor desk--but a cameraman still at his post.
Later, on Cable News Network, Los Angeles reporter Anne McDermott was reporting quake results when the news set wavered. "I think I am going to leave the desk right now," said a frightened-looking McDermott. Even after that turned out to be a false alarm, McDermott still appeared more shaken than relieved.
Nothing could better convey the terror and helplessness of being in the middle of an earthquake or its aftershocks than these TV pictures of reporters reporting a story that seemed on the verge of making them casualties.
"Those of us standing in the newsroom were knocked off our feet," Shocknek later reported about the effect of the earthquake itself.
Earlier, he and Nance may have panicked some viewers by the tone of their reporting. Both said they had never experienced a quake of such magnitude in all their years in California (actually, it registered only a 6.0 on the Richter Scale). "I'm trying to avoid saying this is The Big One. . . .,' " Shocknek said.
"I've never felt a quake this strongly," Nance said.
"I can tell you at this point, this is not the earthquake--these are my hands shaking," said Shocknek, adding later: "This might have been The Big One."
Channel 4 began getting calls that Nance and Shocknek were unnecessarily alarming viewers. "We don't want to do that," Shocknek apologized.
Their possibly distorted perspective was forgivable considering their close proximity to peril. And, in fact, Channel 4's early coverage was simply heroic, as the station--alone among other TV stations--was continuously on the air when it was most important to be on the air. Shocknek--and especially Nance, who fed valuable quake information and advice to viewers at a critical early time--did an outstanding job in difficult circumstances while other stations were giving only spotty reports.
Channel 4 may not have been at the epicenter of the quake but, when it counted most, it was the epicenter of the coverage.
Later, though, Channel 4 lagged behind, becoming studio bound while KABC-TV Channel 7 and KCBS-TV Channel 2 sent out their minicam units and concentrated on live reports from around the city. (Although KNBC's news crews are staffed by fill-in personnel as a result of the 13-week-old strike by the National Assn. of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians, a station spokeswoman said the delay in deploying field units was unrelated to the labor dispute.)
Earliest and most dramatic of the minicam reports was Channel 7's from the Los Angeles County Jail, where reporter Joe McMahan happened to be doing a story on another subject when the quake hit. Later, Channel 7 showed remarkable videotape footage of deputies pouring from the jail after the quake.
By late morning, Channels 2, 4 and 7, and to a much lesser extent KTLA Channel 5, were providing continuous live coverage.
--Stations rushed anchors and fill-in anchors onto news sets so fast that some hadn't had time for the usual preparation. So Channel 4 viewers got the rare sight of Kirstie Wilde and Linda Alvarez without makeup.
--Channel 2's Valerie Coleman took honors for having the most calming presence at a time of potential crisis. Watching and listening to her was like having your teacher coolly lead you from a burning school building.
--When it came to explaining the nature of quakes, clearly and simply, no one topped Channel 2 meteorologist Kevin O'Connell.
--No local station promotes its weathercasting more than Channel 7. But the station's weathercasters were nowhere to be seen during its morning coverage of the quake.
--There was something very genuine and touching about the way news reporters and personalities reported their personal experiences relating to the quake. Wilde said she was in bed with her child when the quake hit. O'Connell's house, he told viewers, "sounded like a bag of coins jiggling."
--Even the PTL Club (yes, that PTL Club) got into the act during its Thursday morning taping. "Please pray for those people in California," someone said. "They need your prayers right now."
A message to The Big One.