Stars align, for passengers and photographers alike

January 16, 2009

Gary Hershorn is the Reuters News pictures editor for the Americas

It was another ordinary Thursday in the Thomson Reuters building in Times Square.

I was spending endless hours at my desk on the 19th floor, helping to work out the logistics for next week’s presidential inauguration and talking with photographer Eric Thayer.

The quiet was broken at about 3:30pm when a colleague yelled out to the newsroom: “There is an airplane in the water!”

Photographer Brendan McDermid and I jumped up and ran twenty feet to the window and saw a plane floating in the water, with some people on the wings. Eric grabbed his cameras and laptop and ran to the river. Someone ran into a training course and notified photographer Mike Segar about the crash; he also headed to the river. Chip East, who was at home, followed them to see what he could get.

Brendan had a camera on his desk and a 400mm lens on the floor. He grabbed them and started shooting. I had to dig into a drawer and find a camera, a battery and a compact flash card. I had a 500mm lens in a case under my desk.

By the time I got it all together and headed back to the window, the plane had drifted out of sight behind a water tower. Brendan ingested his disk into our remote photo editing system and ran out of the office to the river. I stood at the window and within a couple minutes the plane drifted back into view, just as a ferry arrived on the scene. While this was happening, photo editors in Washington started to edit Brendan’s pictures.

While looking at the plane I was shouting out info to the journalists who were writing the story: “It’s a big plane, looks like a US Airways plane I think, lots of people on the wings.”

It took about a minute for the plane to drift behind a building. I only shot about 30 frames before it disappeared from sight again. At that point I ingested the images, made a selection, blew one up huge to confirm it was a US Airways plane and sent the first picture to our picture desk in Singapore for transmission to the wire.

Within minutes it seemed Brendan was back in front of me with pictures from ground level. He was able to shoot some pictures of passengers and grabbed a pedicab to take him back to Times Sq. His pictures kept the flow of fresh images flowing.

Eric Thayer arrived at the river and saw a group of firemen running to a big ferry boat. He asked if he could go aboard and was told yes, as long as he stayed out of the way. Eric was able to get up close to the plane and take some of the most dramatic photos of the day, of passengers in life rafts waiting to be rescued.

Eric was able to send a few pictures from the boat, on the river, thankfully having taken his laptop with him.

“The passengers looked scared, and fatigued. It was pretty cold, and many of them weren’t wearing coats, since most of their jackets were probably underwater in the overhead bins,” he said.

Once Eric was back on shore he ingested his pictures into our editing system using a wireless connection and I transmitted while sitting in the office.

Mike Segar walked along the river staying with the plane as it drifted farther and farther south. Chip East did the same, stopping to file some quick pictures.

Just as the stars aligned — a plane crash without loss of a single life — our coverage all fell into place with the extreme good fortune of us being able to see the plane from ournewsroom window, and Eric arriving at the river just as rescue crews were loading onto a boat. Images were sent to the world within minutes of the plane hitting the water.

You can’t plan for a plane crash like you can for the inauguration of a president. Everything is based on luck and quick decisions. Thursday it all fell into place for us.

Looking at the pictures in newspapers on Friday morning,  three of our photos got major play:

  • one by Brendan McDermid of the plane in the water with passengers standing on the wings,
  • one by Gary Hershorn of a ferry pulling up next to the plane
  • one by Eric Thayer of passengers sitting in a life raft looking at a diver

It was a complete team effort to get those images to the world.

12 comments

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Great to hear the stories behind the pictures which were used on the front of the national papers in the UK. Thankyou for your time in writing this blog entry!!

Posted by Adam | Report as abusive

as a flight attendant I feel so much emotion looking at these pictures, pride in my fellow crew members who got all these people safely out of the plane, pride in the pilots abilities (all of them) to safely bring the aircraft down in the water and not have it flip or break up.People…pay attention to those demos at the start of the flight…the info contained in it can and will save your life!Well done everyone on the plane and on the water. It’s a good day!

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Gary, great job by you and the rest of your Reuters’ crew. Grace and professionalism under pressure. I have been in this business a long time and for once a plane crash has an incredibly positive story behind it. For those that are journalists know that this is not the usual case.Yes it is our job to report the ones where no one survived, but we all hope deep down and we are more than glad to report the ones that turn out positive; mostly they are not. This one however is one of a kind and your crew did a great job with coverage in difficult conditions.Keep up the good work!Tom Braid

Great job! Team work at its best! And great blog!

[...] Eds Note: Gary Hershorn of Reuters describes how he and his staff covered the crash from their New York [...]

Well done gang. Great stories and a great blog. Compliments from your colleagues in New Orleans.

Posted by John McCusker | Report as abusive

Now from the practical point of view, suppose a tourist was able to snap similar shots of comparable quality. Who would be interested in buying them and how much could he/she ask for them?

Posted by Juan R. Pollo | Report as abusive

Nice work mr News Pictures Editor!BrChrister Höglund, Sweden

Posted by Christer Höglund | Report as abusive

Photographs can only say so much. I’ve always enjoyed reading about how certain photographs came to be. It gives insight into the thought process of the photographers involved and adds another dimension to the story.

Truly excellent spontaneous candid pics! Cool, funny and TIMELESS.

timeless images…cool!

[...] Stars align, for passengers and photographers alike [...]

[...] Stars align, for passengers and photographers alike [...]

Just glad that it turned out ok. Good photographs.

It was fortunate that the plane managed to make a safe enough landing to allow passengers to escape. Great photography coverage.