Covering the Exxon Valdez disaster
It was shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989 that the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in Prince Edward Sound and began leaking millions of gallons of North Slope crude oil. I was sound asleep in Toronto, Canada when that happened.
Reuters was still taking a feed of pictures from UPI (United Press International) from the United States. But I remember hearing the news that morning and packing my gear (which at that time was film, powder chemicals, portable darkroom, 16S color transmitter and of course.. some cold weather clothing). I sat in Toronto as the politics of the news business played out in Washington between Reuters and UPI. Finally, it was decided that we would both cover the story. So, David Ake, a UPI staffer from Denver, and I made our way there. I remember landing in Anchorage, Alaska, and hauling my gear into a rental car at midnight, then driving six hours to Valdez in the dead of night. About 4 hours into the drive I was held up by a few hundred caribou, who decided to cross the two lane highway, they were just mingling so I still have vivid memories of being in the middle of nowhere honking my horn to help speed up the process.
I rolled into Valdez at first light and it didn’t take long to realize that most of the town’s people did not want the media there. The few media that had found rooms at the only hotel in town were all having to checkout as rumor had it that Exxon had bought the hotel. With help from our desk in Washington and the chamber of commerce in Valdez I found a place to stay at the home of the local taxidermist.
The leaking tanker was some 50 miles away from Valdez and the only way to get a picture was to fly. Chris Wilkins, a fellow photographer from AFP, was now on the ground and we hooked up to try and help one another sort out the situation. All the planes and helicopters were now on 24 hr booking by Exxon. We were dead in the water to get pictures of the ship. Chris started tracking down a plane outside the area and I went looking for the coast guard. Little did we know that the coast guard was planning on closing down the air space around the now widening environmental disaster.
Chris found a plane from an Indian reservation and made plans to meet the pilot at first light the next morning at a gravel runway outside of town. I made some pictures around town, but there was very little to shoot. Chris and I went out to the air strip the next morning and sat waiting. Sure enough a small black spec in the sky circled down around the glacier-covered mountains and landed on the gravel air strip. The pilot jumped out, he looked no older than 15. Chris and I looked at each other, then we looked at the plane, then we climbed in and looked at each other again.
The pilot took us up and we were tossed around pretty good in the wind. In about 20 minutes we were over the top of the ship, we circled the tanker, made our pictures and headed back to file.
David Ake from UPI had arrived and we set up our darkroom in the basement of the taxidermist home, next to a recently stuffed lynx or bobcat. It was surreal. The rest of the story seems a bit of a blur. We pooled our resources. AP managed to get a float plane in from down south and the coast guard gave me a call letter that would let us into the air space. We took turns taking flights out each day to the tanker and followed the oil as it washed up on the rocky coastline. I remember you had to open the back door of the plane, step down onto an oil covered pontoon and wedge your back into the side of the plane to keep from slipping off into the frigid ocean; all while hand holding a 300mm lens as the plane rocked back and forth with the swells.
The oil soaked animals began arriving at a local school where rescue workers had set up a facility to wash the oil off in an effort to save them. I remember making some key images there and then David Ake arrived from his turn in the plane having made an amazing picture of two coastguard pilots dressed in their orange flight suits and shaded flight helmets carrying dead oil-soaked birds from a small island.