Television struggles to capture quake drama

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The number was frightening -- a 6.8 earthquake in the Pacific Northwest -- but television had to struggle to find dramatic pictures to match.

Lingering shots of small piles of rubble, of emergency officials on cell phones and of blanket-wrapped residents on a city street filled special newscasts about the Washington disaster.

But as the hours passed, the cameras began to find scenes that vividly demonstrated the earthquake's destructive power, including fallen roadways, landslides, fires and cars crushed by fallen debris.

More structural damage could be hidden, one reporter said to explain Seattle's relatively unscarred appearance.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates had a starring role in the coverage: He was in a Seattle hotel addressing a technology conference when the quake hit and a video camera caught the moment.

The tape was played and replayed, with CNN using a small oval circle to highlight Gates on footage that showed the computer magnate heading for safety off the stage.

Overhead lights crashed to the auditorium floor and members of the audience bolted for exits.

Shaky videotape of people scrambling under desks during the temblor also aired, but the awesome rumbling, rattling sensation of a quake is difficult for TV to capture.

It was the fear on people's faces that told the story best.

''I was just in a big whirl,'' one shaken woman told CNN.

The quake shut down the Seattle airport, knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people and cracked the dome atop the state Capitol in Olympia.

There were instant science lessons as reporters threw out terms including ''subduction zones'' and ''p waves and s waves'' in attempts to explain seismic force.

The televised images of damage were in sharp contrast to those seen after India's devastating January quake, which leveled villages and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, or after this months disastrous Salvadoran quakes.

Coverage of Seattle's quake was afflicted by a hoaxster as newscasts scrambled for details: A man posing as a Seattle official called a local TV station and gave an exaggerated report of damage before admitting it was a prank. The report was picked up nationally.

At CNN, the quake shook apart plans for a tribute to retiring anchorman Bernard Shaw, who had to settle for a brief goodbye and hug from colleague Judy Woodruff. The tribute was rescheduled for Friday.

The strongest temblor to hit Washington state in 52 years occurred at 10:55 a.m. PST, was centered 35 miles southwest of Seattle and was felt in British Columbia and parts of Oregon 300 miles away.

In earthquake-prone Los Angeles, TV stations bumped soap operas to carry uninterrupted feeds from Seattle-area stations.

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