GM - Story #3

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Chapter 13

In a small dark office, under the shadow of the Prudential Building in downtown Boston, Jameis Thomason, Managing Editor of the Christian Science Monitor On-Line Edition, sat in his cluttered office. He ignored the hustle of a city beneath his window, rich with college kids hopping bars and sports teams hosting hated rivals in hallowed arenas. He pushed all calls to voicemail and ignored his wife’s three text messages.

Instead, he pressed his nose closer to the 24-inch monitor of his Mac, staring at two different videos playing side by side in slow motion. He stopped them, nudged them backward and forward. He zoomed and panned. He had received an AP news story of an explosion at an auditorium in Iowa in which all 52 students in the building had miraculously survived.

Jameis knew the dailies would pick up the story and CNN.com and Foxnews.com would have their sites updated with the video footage at least an hour before CSM would be able to react. In fact, the CSM web team had floated a ticker teasing the story at the top of the home page and the corresponding basic coverage was nearly ready to be published.

Mysterious Bomb Explodes at Northern Iowa State University” the headline read. The article presented three paragraphs of the scant details that his editorial staff had been able to gather from police reports and University staff.

“What is this? NISU? No such place,” he shouted out his office door to the two staff reporters in cubicles behind him, who had nothing to do with publishing the headline. “It’s the University of Northern Iowa, UNI.”

He scowled and fired off an e-mail to the on-line headlines writer clarifying that the explosion took place at the University of Northern Iowa and not Iowa State or any other misnomer.

Given the incessant budget cuts that had hit CSM over the years, they would not be able to send a reporter to the scene and would have to rely on local freelancers and affiliates to gather any needed details to cover the story. He instructed everyone on the floor to blitz the local officials in the area with cold calls. Instinctively, Jameis knew there had to be a big story behind the incident. An explosion on a college campus could have a five, even a ten-day shelf-life.

As any journalist in the post-911-era, he instantly suspected terrorism, either by Islamic extremists or of the local domestic variety. Images of the Oklahoma City bombing sprung to mind as he reviewed the footage in freeze frame slow motion.

“Any students expelled recently? … any professors fired? … any controversial exhibits or courses? … Look for commonality between the 52 students in the blast. … Any professors from Middle east?”

An instant message popped up on his screen to alert him that the revised feature article on the home page had gone live with the corrected headline. He clicked the link and checked it out. A picture of a large rubble pile with a collapsed roof dominated the page. The article quoted the Chief of Police and a University spokesperson, both of whom described the situation as highly suspicious. They also cautiously expressed relief to report no fatalities.

Not long after the article hit the CSM page, CNN came out with the video footage from the security cam outside the facility showing the entire explosion and ensuing aftermath. The footage, which featured clear, high resolution images, matched the video file that Jameis had received from his contact at the AP.

It hit the airwaves soon after Jameis received it and rolled for about two minutes. CNN looped the same clip repetitively, alternating it with B-roll from the campus and interviews with local authorities. Jameis looked over his shoulder to watch as on-site CNN reporters jammed their microphones into the faces of various students standing just outside the containment area to ask what they saw or how they heard about the incident.

Jameis fast forwarded through the two-minute lead, followed by the 30 seconds of the building collapsing and then nearly five minutes of people running to the scene, standing around, calling 911 and ultimately approaching the mess to try and help anyone in need.

At the seven-minute mark, as the first responders arrived at the scene, off to the left side of the screen, almost out of sight, Jameis could see the unfolding of a miraculous escape that had occurred. At a spot where the roof slumped against a girder that had fallen diagonally, a figure could be seen lifting a large section of the roof off the ground. Dust and debris slid off the sloping plane creating enough space for dozens of bloodied, dusty, battered students to crawl away from the rubble to safety. He stood there like the Colossus of Babylon, dressed in some sort of long grey overcoat or jacket that extended down past his waist all the way to the ground. Like a giant letter “X”, he stood still for several minutes, 2 ½ to be exact as the students tumbled out like clowns from a clown car.

Smoke bellowed out of the crawl space, obscuring the view. But as the smoke cleared, the figure moved away and could no longer be seen within the lens of the camera. Emergency crews rushed to help the students and more smoke shielded the view.

Jameis knew it would only be a matter of time before CNN started running the extended scene depicting the mysterious heroics of the unidentified individual.

And just as he crafted an e-mail to the production department to isolate minutes 7:50 – 11:15, he heard the teaser in the background on CNN.

This just in and exclusively shown on CNN … new footage from the Northern Iowa bombing … Images of an unidentified hero rescuing students in the Gallagher Arts Center, literally raising the roof to provide room for everyone to escape through a small hole. Officials are not saying if this individual was a member of the school staff or a student or one of the first responders, but he can clearly be seen in this footage holding up a beam while what looks like dozens of students crawl to safety … an incredible scene in Cedar Falls, Iowa today.”

Jameis had come to work at the Christian Science Monitor 15 years earlier, a graduate from American University with a degree in Journalism. He prided himself on his complete objectivity, having studied and gained inspiration from classic newsmen like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Tim Russert. Most of all, he couldn’t imagine pursuing a vocation in which he did not feel like he could contribute to the betterment of society on a regular basis.

He had friends that sold software and pharmaceuticals. He had cousins that sold copiers and cars. He had old classmates that worked in the Finance departments of large corporations and barely understood or cared about the company’s business.

But he couldn’t imagine a life spent peddling goods to consumers or pushing numbers from spreadsheet to spreadsheet. He understood that he was part of a media engine that clearly hawked content to consumers for profit. But he didn’t view his role as a part of that end of the business. He saw himself as a public servant, bringing critical information to his circulation to keep them informed about important social, political and economic news and events.

His father had worked as a Police Officer. His mother stayed home with him and his three siblings in Scituate, Massachusetts, an idyllic suburb south of the city along the way to the Cape. They went to church every Sunday, said Grace before their meals, prayed for their loved ones at night and always voted Republican. Jameis had served as an altar boy as his two older brothers had done before him. They volunteered at the church paper drive, tag sale and pot luck supper every year to help support the community.

He could still recite an entire mass of prayers from the basics like the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary to the Beatitudes and the Prayer of the Faithful. He had never really prayed the Rosary like his sister had each night, but he knew what each bead meant and could do it if he had to.

He believed deeply in the principles he had learned from his time with the Catholic Church regarding how to treat others with patience and sensitivity. He subscribed to concepts such as turning the other cheek and not being the first to cast stones. But he struggled with other more modern, secular church policies such as the ban on birth control, or the strict treatment of divorcées, the unwillingness to allow women to serve as full-fledged priests and the view of sex and cohabitation before marriage as a sin.

Also, no matter how hard he tried and no matter how his parents reinforced the concept, he could not oblige himself to view the consecration of the body and blood as anything other than a symbolic ritual. This meant, as his father would tell him throughout his rebellious twenties, that he could not truly call himself a faithful Christian.

The editorial team worked the phones and Jameis continued to study the footage while noting his observations into the digital recorder on his desk:

“It looks like some sort of long jacket or overcoat …” he muttered. “Same height …Same shaped eyes … Shape of mouth small in both shots … Hair color, skin color slight variations. … Hard to tell from shadowing and angle of sun. …”

Missy Davidson, a young, attractive recent college graduate from Bentley, wearing a tight hot pink shirt made of some stretchy ribbed material entered Jameis’ office with a note pad and pen.

Jameis could remember interviewing Missy for a Staff Writer position. She had majored in Journalism and had worked as the Co-Editor of the Student Newspaper during her senior year at Bentley. She had also just completed an internship as a Production Assistant at the NBC affiliate in West Hartford, CT, followed by a stint as a PR Assistant at an agency in Hartford. But she preferred to write than to manage and wanted to move to a more dynamic city where she could gain diverse experience and better define her career path.

She had prepared so diligently for the interview with him by exhaustively researching the Church of Christ Science, which owned the paper. She spent half the interview explaining her devotion to her own religion Judaism, and how her views of Jesus Christ as a smart and charismatic leader of people would not conflict with the views of the Church of Christ Science. She just wanted a break into Journalism, she told him, and she was willing to take on any assignment to show how she could present a story and bring it to life.

Jameis had been impressed with the depth and scope of her knowledge of religion and religious issues, the result of her Minor in Humanities. But he barely had the heart to explain to her that the Christian Science Monitor, while owned by the church, did not profess any favoritism or tendency toward representing religious views on the news. In fact, the paper prided itself on its objectivity and sought to compete with and blend into the homogenous group generally referred to as “the mainstream media”.

He found himself repeating to her in her interview the same lines that he had often regurgitated to friends, family and acquaintances at parties and gatherings.

“We are a straight-up, unbiased news agency.” He explained. “We gather the most current news, events and noteworthy stories from all over the world and report on them like any other news media outlet.”

During their interview, Jameis informed Missy that he was not a follower of the religion and that he really no longer belonged to any religious group.

When Missy asked, “What are you then?” he thought for a minute before defining himself in new terms – something other than a Catholic - for the first time in his life.

“I think of myself as an optimistic Agnostic.” He said. “I’d like to hope and believe that there is something out there, but I am not sure we can ever really know until we die.”

The image of Missy entering his office, bright-eyed and enthusiastic to start her career made him smile and also depressed him when he contrasted her exuberance for the weariness he felt at the end of each day.

“They don’t know anything about the guy in the video,” Missy reported, with notebook flailing about in her small hand. “They don’t think he was a teacher. They are releasing statements that only refer to him as an unknown hero.”

“It appears, from other students to be some sort of social group or club.” Missy read through her notes with conscientious precision. “One student referred to them as a Civics club. And get this; one of the students whose roommate was rescued indicated that the group was listening to a guest speaker at the time of the explosion. So, I’m thinking that our hero is neither from the faculty, nor the staff, but an unknown third party.”

“That’s good,” Jameis glanced out through the doorway to the TV screen. “CNN keeps referring to him as a student or faculty member. There’s one fact wrong. Maybe we can break that he may not be associated with the school at all.”

“Is there anything on-line about the schedule for the class?” Jameis continued, “Can we figure out what the program was about, or maybe who this guest speaker may have been?”

Missy had no additional facts of use and Jameis dismissed her with a kind word of thanks for her hard work on the story.

“More light in the video from Bethlehem … Harder shadows in UNI Video. … Could be some sort of robe … Pretty sure it’s the same person … Could be big.”

Jameis turned to the second monitor on his desk and typed a headline into a search engine and then stared at the page: “Miracle in Middle America”.

Jameis’ eyes watered and itched after staring at his computer screens for the past several hours since the Iowa bombing story broke. By now, a dozen additional iReport videos had made their way to CNN’s web site and he had studied each one for signs of the mysterious hero that appeared to have saved all of the students in the auditorium. He pieced together a timeline whereby the hero pushed aside the slumping roof to save the students, then moved off the left side of the original video. In the background of a video shot by a student who heard the explosion and immediately started filming out his dorm room window, Jameis could trace the shadow of the figure moving along the walkway toward the library. He met a second individual, a tall heavyset or muscular male, who appeared to greet him and walk off toward a back parking lot.

Other videos seemed to focus on the wreckage, but Jameis drilled in on a series of photos shot by one of the faculty who had been working in a nearby administrative office. The faculty member had taken pictures on his iPhone of the responders and reaction shots of the gathering crowd. Jameis could make out the silhouettes of the two figures moving away from the scene toward what looked like a little two-seater BMW. The last meaningful picture showed the blue vehicle moving away from the parking lot, unnoticed by any of the students that had gathered in front of the building.

“Missy,” he shouted out his door. “Get me the log from the University Police of every car that came through the campus. We’re looking for a blue BMW. See if you can get the make, model and plates. Also, see if they can e-mail us the image from their entrance camera. I want to know whose car it was and who was driving it.”

While Missy worked on his request, he scanned through several travel web sites looking for a good deal on a last-minute flight to Iowa.

He returned to his dual monitors. Using video analysis software, he drew vertical lines to measure the relative heights of the street lamp outside the building, the windows of the building next to the auditorium and several cars in the side parking lot. He then drew a line next to the hero in the picture.

“6 foot 3,” he mumbled to himself, toggling over to a similar picture from an event several years earlier. “I think we have a match.”

“I compared the university surveillance photo to pictures of Senator Johnson and it is definitely not him in the driver seat. Maybe the car was stolen, but there is no report with the Norwalk or DesMoines PDs. They have one grainy shot from overhead and a high-res shot directly into the driver’s seat from the guard station. The driver is a much larger guy, a white guy. He’s a good ten years younger at least. He has short blond hair – kind of spiky, a square jaw, day old stubble and very chiseled chin and cheeks, like someone who works out a lot or is in really good shape. He possibly has blue eyes. It is hard to tell. That’s all I’ve got for you.”

Jameis’ cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He had worked through the evening and neglected to call his wife. He hesitated for a second, but his train of thought remained on the story. The buzzing eventually stopped.

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