A deafening boom startled me awake the next morning. I shot straight up in bed, instantly alert, trying to identify the source. The last time I’d heard a mammoth sound like that, a meth lab had exploded in a Hollywood apartment building six blocks away. I’d been the first reporter on the scene that night, the first to break the story at the top of our eleven o’clock newscast. Would it be too much to hope for another meth-lab explosion?
A flash of light pierced the darkness. Then I heard the drumming sound of rain pelting the roof. I groaned and burrowed under the covers.
I hate it when it rains in Los Angeles. I don’t own a real raincoat or boots, and I never can remember where I put any of the three umbrellas I own. And no one looks good in the rain, especially TV reporters in station-issued storm gear that adds twenty pounds.
On the plus side, rain brought with it a whole slew of great story possibilities. Mudslides in the mountains and canyons. Flooding in the water-control channels. Hubcap-deep water. Car collisions. Stalled traffic on the freeways. Power outages. Stories that got plenty of airtime.
I tried to convince myself that the extra airtime would make up for my being ripped from the Good Sam story, but it wasn’t working. I was still smarting from the offense and considered making my case directly to Bonnie Ungar. But so far everyone who had gone into her office to complain about anything came out unemployed. Okay, maybe she wasn’t actually that trigger-happy, but I figured I’d wait a bit, allow Susan Andrews to disappoint them too, then make my case.
I hurried through a two-minute shower, threw on some wrinkle-resistant pants, grabbed the station-issued rain jacket and matching blue umbrella, and hurried out the door. Los Angeles is utter chaos when it rains. The streets turn into a real-life version of bumper cars where vehicles skid, spin, and slam into each other the minute the rain hits the pavement. Some pundits have theorized that because it rains so infrequently, oil and grime collect on the freeways, making them unusually slick. I suspect the real reason is that Los Angeles drivers spend so much time in their cars driving under blue skies and sunshine that we don’t think of driving as an activity that requires attention, skill, and, yes, caution.
My commute to the station took fifteen minutes longer than usual, but I was grateful that I had arrived without getting stuck in standstill traffic or caught in a fender bender.
“We got team coverage today, folks,” David Dyal said, rushing into the assignment meeting. “Weather Service says this storm is going to dump three inches in the next twenty-four hours. I need three of you on Storm Watch. Charles, Orange County. Ted, you cover inland and the Valley.” He motioned to me with his Dr Pepper can. “Kate, you’ve got Malibu and the beach communities.”
I smiled. Even the possibility of a mudslide in any of the beach communities was a guarantee of airtime. Lots of it. And not just in Los Angeles. Network news. Viewers around the country can’t get enough of watching nature in all its unpredictable glory putting multimillion-dollar homes in harm’s way.
There were no reports yet of mudslides or accidents in Malibu, but Josh and I headed that way so we’d be there if any news broke. Not that I was wishing tragedy upon anyone, but I did hope something newsworthy would happen to make the trip worthwhile. Otherwise I’d have to do a dreaded “reaction story,” which would require standing in the downpour and interviewing drivers about how the rain was ruining their commute.
We hadn’t been on the road very long before David’s voice crackled over the two-way radio. “A boy has fallen in the river in Malibu Canyon. How fast can you get there?”
“Be there in five,” Josh answered.
My throat constricted. “Is the fire department on the scene?”
“They are, but they can’t get to him,” David said. “Chopper Eleven is on its way. Feed it live when you get there.”
I couldn’t move. Although adrenaline sped through my veins, I had a bad feeling about this story.
Stan McCort, the reporter in Chopper Eleven, had a bird’s-eye view of the canyon. “Looks like the fire department’s got the canyon blocked off,” he said. “You won’t be able to get a clear shot.”
“What about the turnout on Mountain Pass? Can I get a shot from there?” Josh called out.
“Yeah, if you can find it in this downpour.”
Josh knew exactly where it was. I’m pretty sure he had a photographic memory of just about every square mile of Los Angeles County. The narrow mountain roads were slick with rain, but he drove with confidence, smoothly navigating the sharp curves and avoiding the rocks and debris that had tumbled onto the road. Then he screeched to a halt, sliding three feet before we pulled to a stop at a narrow turnout.
“The boy’s moving downstream in your direction,” Stan shouted over the radio.
With practiced calm, Josh jumped out of the van to raise the antenna that would beam our signal back to the station. I put on the earpiece that would connect me to Stan and the control room at the station, zipped up my station-issued storm gear, and opened the door. A strong wet gust yanked it out of my hand, drenching me from head to toe in chilly rain.
“The fire department has deployed multiple units along the stream but hasn’t been able to intercept the boy,” Stan said. “He’s moving fast. Wearing a white T-shirt, Kate.”
I peered over the rim of the canyon into the swirling waters four hundred feet below and felt my head spin. I backed away and leaned against the side of the van.
“You all right?” Josh shouted, hoisting the camera on his shoulder and aiming it into the canyon.
I signaled him with a thumbs-up. But I wasn’t okay. The memories stabbed at me like splinters of glass. I tasted the nausea in my throat and tried to catch my breath. I was drowning again, but this time in slow motion. My body, leaden and heavy, sunk into the milky depths. I felt the bone-chilling cold of the water, the scrape of the rocks and debris against my skin, the searing pain in my lungs as I was dragged deep into the turbid darkness.
“Coming to you live in four minutes, Kate,” Craig from the control room said in my earpiece.
“Okay,” I replied, surprised at the steadiness of my voice.
“Stan and Josh,” Craig continued. “The rain is making it a little fuzzy but we’ve got picture from both of you. We’re recording and will roll the footage hot when we come to Kate live in four.”
From around the bend, a fire department helicopter buzzed downstream carrying a man suspended from a cable about forty feet below the helicopter. I wasn’t sure what they were doing until I saw a white flash in the water.
The helicopter chased the boy downstream, matching his speed. The rescuer on the wire grabbed for him, but the current was strong and pulled the boy away. The helicopter attempted a second pass, but when the rescuer reached for the boy this time, the child went under. The helicopter lifted up, pulling the rescuer thirty feet into the air, and hovered.
“The Malibu Tunnel is about five hundred yards downstream,” Stan shouted. “If they don’t get him before then, he’s in for a very bumpy ride.”
Suddenly the rescuer detached himself from the rope and plunged thirty feet into the rushing whitewater below. He swam around the rocks and eddies, quickly covering the territory where the boy was last seen, then dove underneath. Seconds ticked by. Every nerve in my body was on edge. With each passing moment, the chances of this boy surviving were slipping away.
“Anyone see the rescuer?” Josh asked, his camera trained on the rushing water.
I scanned the rugged terrain with my binoculars, but all I could see was the water rushing over the rocks and chaparral, and the helicopter hovering above the swollen stream. After a while the rescuer had been gone so long that I’d lost track of where he’d last been.
“Can’t see anything from here,” Stan said, his voice solemn.
The sky darkened and the rain began to blow sideways. I scanned the water again, praying for my eyes to glimpse anything that might suggest the rescuer and the boy were alive.
“Looks like the rescuer’s down,” Stan said. “They’re calling for backup.”
It was a good thing we weren’t on the air live because the situation had taken an abrupt, somber turn that can be difficult to report on live. Words fail you in moments like these. Even though I’d reported on many failed rescues, it’s never easy telling the tragic story of lost lives, especially young ones.
Suddenly the rescuer popped straight out of the water, his arms wrapped firmly around the boy. I loosened my death grip on the handle of my umbrella. As I watched the helicopter swoop over them, tears warmed my eyes. A mixture of exhilaration and awe swept over me. This was why I covered the Bummer Beat—for the moment when a life is saved, a crisis is averted, and good triumphs.
“The boy’s not moving,” Stan said in a hushed whisper.
I’d been too optimistic. I peered through my binoculars and held my breath, afraid of what I might see. The boy, no more than seven years old, didn’t move as the rescuer placed a strap around his chest and clipped the strap to the cable.
With the rescuer and boy still attached to the line below, the helicopter took off up the canyon. In my binoculars, I saw the rescuer, hanging a hundred feet above the water, perform CPR on the boy’s limp body. I struggled not to cry, but tears burned at the corners of my eyes.
The helicopter ascended up the steep canyon, clearing treetops and rock outcroppings, with the rescuer and boy spinning below. That’s when I saw the set of high-tension wires draped from rim to rim across the canyon about five hundred feet from the ground. Like a silent enemy, they threatened to snag the rescuer and the boy, dangling like a tetherball below the helicopter.
The helicopter inched closer and closer to the wires. In the thick gray air and fog, I wondered whether the pilot could see the thin lines. Then the helicopter pitched upward several hundred feet, pulling the rescuer and the boy with it, deftly clearing the wires.
“Damn,” Josh said with a choke in his voice.
“Kate,” Craig said through my earpiece, “coming to you in sixty. Ready?”
“Ready.” The sound of my voice, calm and assured, surprised me again.
“He’s got a pulse,” Craig said. “We’ve got Urban Search and Rescue on the line. They say the boy’s got a pulse again.”
There was an excited whoop in my earpiece that sounded like it came from Stan. Josh rushed over, slapped a microphone into my hand and trained his camera on me. I ran my fingers through my hair in a futile attempt to correct the mess the rain had made, then adjusted my earpiece, listening for the “breaking news” intro and waiting for my cue from the anchor, Mark Edwards.
“Live in Malibu Canyon, Channel Eleven’s Kate Bradley is on the scene of the dramatic rescue of a young boy,” Mark announced.
I don’t remember exactly what I said after that. All I know was that the words came out effortlessly. While the station rolled the dramatic footage, I stepped away from reciting the facts and told viewers about the awe all of us on the Channel Eleven crew felt as this heroic firefighter plunged in the rushing water to rescue the young boy, about the rescuer’s unwavering courage and determination to find the boy even as the storm worsened and his own life was at risk, and about the daring maneuver and swift action that defied the odds and brought the young boy to safety.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish