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Eyewitness-1971 Jet Car Crash Dallas International Motor Speedway

For full version of story go to my blog at: http://tvnewsphotogoneeyeclosed.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-jet-car-crash.html My memories of the day: There had been showers that morning and the sky was still a dull gray when I arrived at the Dallas International Motor Speedway. I was working part time for KTVT Channel 11 in Ft. Worth and had been assigned to shoot Art Arfons' 280-mph jet-powered dragster as he tried to better the world quarter mile land speed record. His new two seat "Super Cyclops" was scheduled to make 3 runs, the first, with a WFAA-TV news man. As the car approached the line I pressed the shutter release. The ground was shaking and the sound was painful but even after hearing the incredible roar from the roll up I wasn't prepared when the Super Cyclops blasted into that quarter mile run. It parted my hair! The first thought in my mind was, there's no way I'd get in that car... My God, it could go straight up as easily as forward. I stayed with the shot, following the jet down the asphalt for the 6.01 seconds it took to reach the finish line and then beyond. The jet shut down and immediately there was the blue smoke of skidding rubber and wreckage flying. Then, farther down the strip, a column of smoke. I jumped through a break in the guardrail, and ran toward the crash. As I got nearer I rolled film on a man who was crying and I asked if he was OK? He couldn't speak but gestured to a pile of debris down the track. As I ran closer I began to see it was a human torso scattered among several other body parts. After reaching a little over 183 MPH the dragster had blown a tire, spun 180 degrees and slammed through the guardrail on Thomas' side, striking a track worker with such force that it propelled him into another worker killing him as well. The carnage was overwhelming but I shot the scene as best as I could playing down the grim details I knew would never air anyway. I had shot all 100 feet of film but had another tin in my pocket as I and a young still photographer started to run the several hundred feet farther down the track to the burning jet car wreckage. As we ran a car pulled in front of us, blocking our way, and several large security guys jumped out and backed us into a retaining wall. One of the men demanded we give him our cameras and to my surprise the young still photographer complied. The man immediately opened the back, pulled out the film and exposed it to the light. Although I was out of film I had pretended to shoot the man as soon as he got out of the car and was still doing so when he turned to me. The Bell and Howell's handy leather strap made it a pretty good club as I backed against the wall and raised the camera above my head. "I'm dropping the first guy that touches me", I warned. I wasn't the biggest guy in that group but I sure wasn't the littlest either. I was going to be a lot more trouble than that young guy with the still camera. They didn't come any closer and I agreed to stop taking pictures of them as more people arrived on the scene to see what was going on. A truce of sorts was worked out when the security man contacted the control tower about the situation. He talked in front of me on the radio to a supervisor who told them not to touch me or the camera and politely asked me to return to the tower with them. I agreed. In the office I was met by Mike Landess who was working part time at WFAA and freelancing as PR for the track. There were several other people in the room who seemed to be speedway officials. They didn't demand the film but wanted to talk to my boss at Channel 11 and I gave them the number. I heard the conversation as they threatened to sue the station if we showed anything inappropriate. After several minutes they handed the phone to me and I was told to get shots of the wrecked car and then get back to the station with the film as quick as possible. The security people took me back to the crash site and I got my final shots. The story aired that night and the station never was sued. Not long after the crash I was filming an interview with Harry Reasoner, then of ABC, at the Dallas Press Club when I ran into Travis Lynn, the news director at WFAA-TV. I'd been making the rounds of all the TV stations that summer trying to move up the news ladder, so Travis knew who I was. He complimented my work on the jet car crash and offered me a job at channel 8. This after telling me just a few weeks earlier that I needed more experience. I worked there for three years often with Mike Landess who I met at the track office and later worked with at KBTV. He's now an anchorman at KMGH in Denver. So that's how it happened, my first TV news job in a major market. Although I took his picture, I never met, Ch 8's, Gene Thomas but his career ended the day mine really began. Life and death... My, how we blunder along. In the news business you're confronted with that over and over. After awhile you begin to see it's just part of the story.


 


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