An act of God

April 19, 2010

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks, the flights were booked, passes applied for and I’d even had my suit dry cleaned especially. One of the reasons I became a press photographer and a big factor in why you aspire to work for Reuters is to shoot major figures and stories, both in the world of news and sport, around the globe. Despite ticking off various world leaders, sporting greats, world cups and Olympics, I’d never photographed a Pope.

Pope Benedict XVI nods off during a mass at the Granaries in Floriana April 18, 2010. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
Pope Benedict XVI nods off during a mass at the Granaries in Floriana April 18, 2010. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

So when I was asked to join the Reuters team covering his trip to Malta I jumped at the chance. This was an opportunity to see first hand how the Pope was dealing with the media spotlight he and the Catholic church are currently under, and also to familiarize myself a little with Vatican protocol ahead of the Papal visit to the UK later this year.

The day finally arrived, the bags were packed and the alarm set for 4am to give me enough time to make the short drive to Manchester airport to catch my 630am flight…however it wasn’t the alarm that woke me with a jolt, but an SMS from my airline telling me that due to a volcano in Iceland erupting and spewing ash, my flight had been canceled! This was the start of what would turn out to be one of the craziest days in my life and gives a small insight into the unpredictable nature of news coverage.

EUROPE-AIR/
Grounded aircraft remain at their stands outside a terminal building at Manchester Airport, northern England April 19, 2010. REUTERS/Phil Noble

I thought I’d solved the problem by 6am when I returned home and rebooked myself on the following day’s flight. At this point just a handful of planes were affected but, as the caffeine from the first coffee of the day kicked in and TV news bulletins began I soon realized this was far more serious than a few canceled flights. I returned to the airport and began to take pictures of the now more chaotic scenes.

Passengers wait, after flights were disrupted, in a terminal in Manchester Airport, Manchester northern England April 15, 2010.    REUTERS/Phil Noble
Passengers wait, after flights were disrupted, in a terminal in Manchester Airport, Manchester northern England April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Phil Noble

The UKI chief photographer Dylan Martinez had now picked up my early morning mails and after consultation with him and other desks it was decided, due to accreditation problems, I should try and beat the dust cloud and find a way to Malta that day.

Lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Manchester airport was now closed but Heathrow and Gatwick in London were still open, 35 minutes of frantic phone calls to the desk and travel agents saw me booked on an evening flight to Malta. Just as the flights were confirmed and I had checked the train schedule, the news broke on the wires – Heathrow would close at midday…now what!

A display board show cancelled flights in a terminal in Manchester Airport, Manchester northern England April 15, 2010.  REUTERS/Phil Noble
A display board show canceled flights in a terminal in Manchester Airport, Manchester northern England April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Phil Noble

More phone calls, more time scouring the net, then the solution – continental Europe was still open for business. I could take the train to London, then catch the Euro star to Brussels or Paris and fly on from there. As I raced back home from the airport after filing my pictures and headed for the station, the travel agents were hard at work.

It was at this point I had one of my more bizarre phone calls of the day, when the voice I frantically barked at down the mobile turned out to be the assistant to the Archbishop of Malta, politely informing me all was well with my pass and he looked forward to seeing me tomorrow. Like a form of therapy, I gave him the whole story of volcanoes, dust clouds and canceled flights to which he replied something along the lines of “well we can’t do much about acts of God”. If the Catholic church can’t what chance have I, I mused!

Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

It seemed half the world had had a similar idea to me and trains to Paris were booked up, but after a sweaty 30 minutes when we’d heard there was a ticketing problem and all the other trains were full too, good news I had a seat on a train to Brussels. It would be too late to catch a flight that night, but I was booked on a plane via Frankfurt the following day, all I had to do was make it to London.

The two hour ride from Manchester to London was smoother than usual, and even the tube journey across the capital was pretty painless despite my large bags of camera gear. With time to spare I was sat on my bag, ticket in hand waiting for my gate to open, job done…..or so I thought.

It was at this point that my phone rang again and our chief photographer in Belgium gave me the splendid news that Belgian airspace was now also closed and wouldn’t open again anytime soon.

Stranded passengers sleep on camp beds as they wait for their flights at the Zaventem international airport near Brussels April 16, 2010.   REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Stranded passengers sleep on camp beds as they wait for their flights at the Zaventem international airport near Brussels April 16, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The game was up, continental Europe had gone the same way as the UK, and the big black cloud over my head all day had finally beaten me. The only saving grace was that other colleagues’ feverish efforts with the Vatican had secured us a last minute extra accreditation and a colleague from Rome would replace me in Malta.

Fifteen hours after it all began I arrived back home, exhausted both physically and mentally, and now with no hope of making it to Malta. I guess my suit will have to stay clean until September!

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I wish you and everybody else better luck next Pope.

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