‘How I wrote the story’: Take your assignments with a grain of salt

Jill Leovy’s editor had one view of the story. Jill’s gut told her otherwise

Three weeks ago, an old apartment building in L.A. burned down, killing two people: the building’s manager, who remains an arson suspect, and a woman who lived in the building. She died moments after handing her two young children to firemen; they came within a few feet of rescuing her before she fell to her death from the fourth floor.

My boss on the Times Metro Desk asked me to supervise a follow-up story about the most poignant angle: The orphaned children. It seemed irresistible. Except that when reporter Jill Leovy followed up, it turned out there was a common-law husband and father in the picture–he simply hadn’t been home at the time of the fire. This was good for the kids and it was good for us, too, because as Jill responded to the routine assignment, she found a much better angle–one nobody had imagined during the assigning process.

'How I wrote the story': Take your assignments with a grain of salt

'How I wrote the story': Take your assignments with a grain of salt

“The story,” she told me confidently midway through her first day of follow-up reporting, “is the firemen.”

I offer her experience and her tips as a reminder to reporters to take every assignment from their editors with the awareness that something far different–and far better–may be lurking out there.

To whet your appetite, read the first dozen grafs of Jill’s story, which was published five days after we dispatched her.

By Jill Leovy
Aug. 25, 2001

Among firefighters there’s a term for what happened at the Palomar Hotel last week. It was a “career fire”–the worst in a career.

Nine days after the Hollywood apartment building exploded in an arson attempt that went awry, some firefighters continue to second-guess themselves for failing to save Norma Galindo, who fell to her death before their eyes after passing her two children to safety. They keep trying to figure how they might have gotten a few feet farther in a few seconds less.

Capt. Bob McMaster tips forward in his chair and his voice grows huskier as he describes the moment he stood balanced near the top of a nearly vertical 35-foot ladder with a blank masonry wall in front of his face and pavement far below. He was breaking every rule in the book, stretching one hand toward the ankle of a toddler who was suspended in midair.

Telling the story later, McMaster involuntarily reaches an arm out to grasp empty space, his eyes fixed on a point about five feet beyond his hand.

“I’ve had 26 1/2 years on,” he says, “and this one has affected me in ways that are hard to explain.”

Jose Antonio “Tony” Cardona, the firefighter who was closest to Galindo when she fell, presses his hands to his temples.

“My head hurts,” he says, smiling apologetically. “It’s been hurting since the fire. I think it’s ’cause I am trying not to think about it.”

Galindo, 38, was one of two people killed in the fire near the Hollywood Freeway’s Santa Monica Boulevard offramp. Her children were hospitalized for several days, and two firemen are still recovering from burn surgeries. Investigators say 40 gallons of gasoline were spread throughout the building by an arsonist, then blew up when the fumes were touched off by a water heater pilot light.

McMaster works out of Fire Station 35, on Hillhurst Avenue south of Prospect Avenue. He is 51, 6-foot-3, a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike. The other firefighters jokingly call him “the Marlboro man.”

His company was among the first to respond to the 3:41 a.m. alarm on Aug. 16–a report of a structure fire and possible explosion. He saw the fire had reached every floor and the roof. There were people in windows, people swarming on the fire escapes, people screaming.

Within minutes, the men from Station 35 had made their first rescue, helping a man down a ladder from a third-floor window.

Then McMaster saw Galindo appear at a fourth-floor window.

– – – – –

As you can see, Jill realized she had a powerful narrative about the moments in which the children were saved and the mother was lost, told from the point of view of the firefighters. Listen to her, and then we’ll finish reading her story:

I was assigned to do a newsfeature on the kids who were rescued from this fire. They were still hospitalized. It seemed like a good possibility. But it was a big headache. The father didn’t want to talk. The hospital was a fortress. I gave up, and, feeling a little desperate, I went to a silly press conference on the aftermath of the fire, which at this point was four days old.

There, the cops solemnly announced they had nothing to announce.

But Fire Capt. Rick Godinez was there. He had some minor role, like making sure the reporters stayed behind the tape. We got to chatting. I asked him if he knew anyone involved in the rescue.

”Well,” he said. ”I was there.” And that’s how the story you’re reading started.

In the end, Godinez was a minor character in the story, but he hooked me up with all the other guys, most notably the incomparable Tony Cardona. I wrote a much longer story than was necessary, trying to to give space to everyone I’d talked to. My editor trimmed it down [to 50 inches]. In doing so, he showed me what the story was actually about: Tony and Bob McMaster.

The experience reinforced three lessons, stuff I already knew, or am figuring out:

Number one: Take those assignments with a grain of salt. In this case, the assignment about the kids had come from above, passed down through a couple layers of management. We’ve all been there. Big Editor has ordered up this story–a certain story! a certain angle!–and everyone is jumpy.

In this case, the assignment I got could have made a good story. I just couldn’t make it work. The lesson is, don’t get tunnel vision. Do the story that presents itself. Do what’s doable. Take a chance. Follow your own sense of what’s interesting. In the end, that’s what they pay you for. Chances are, Big Editor just wants a good story, anyway.

Number two: Be a good listener. I used to think being a good reporter meant asking a lot of good, sharp questions. But in recent years, listening has concerned me more.

By nature, I am a somewhat nervous, edgy person who moves fast and talks quickly, breathlessly, and a lot. It’s my deepest nature to make everything more complicated than it ought to be. If I were an animal, I’d probably be a housefly. All of which is to say I am a terrible interviewer. Improving, for me, has meant a conscious struggle against my own inclinations. This is my drill:

Really attend to people. Pay attention not just to what they are saying, but how they are saying it. Watch their hands especially, but also their eyes and posture. Try hard to follow the thread of what they are saying.

It is not as easy as you think.They are going where they are going, not where you expect. Pay especially close attention to unobtrusive people. Be as frank as possible about what you are doing, though not in detail. This frankness is not just an issue of fair play; it’s mental thing for me–it makes me more relaxed and effective. Stay pretty quiet. Interrupt as little as possible. Speak slowly and be very direct. Don’t be clever. Don’t make many jokes. Don’t laugh very much. No matter what you ask, use a neutral tone, and keep your voice low and even.

Resist the urge to fill silences. You may be glib and ironic in ordinary life, but here, save it. Take people seriously. Believe they have something to say. Even people who are not big talkers can be very eloquent when speaking of their own experience. Don’t worry about wearing them out. They want to talk to you.

When I asked Rick Godinez if he knew anyone involved in the rescue, I swear his voice suddenly got lower and softer. He was hesitant, and he was still determined to be Mister Official. But if you pay attention, you can tell when people secretly want to talk about a certain subject. They radiate it. And if you attend to them closely, they will tell you where the story is. They may not know it themselves, but they will point you there. They will always–always–do this in passing. They will inevitably do it when you are about to interrupt them.

Finally, I have found using a tape recorder very useful–not so much to record what they say, but to record myself. Hearing your own voice interviewing is a great way to understand what you are doing wrong.

Number three: Think about authentic detail. I read some article where historians were debating whether Andre Malraux or someone had really been in battles, or just lied about it like he did everything else. One historian made a case for Malraux by pointing his use of authentic details. For example, in a description of a battlefield, Malraux had once made a reference to grass seared orange by gunpowder (or something like that). The point is, it’s unlikely someone would think that up, or even know that gunpowder turns grass orange. Who knew? Only a person who had been there could come up with that. It is an authentic detail, which lends believability to Malraux’s writings.

So, don’t just use details, concentrate on authentic details–the ones you never would have thought of, the ones only a person who had been there would know. The fact that the kids in this fire had wet, slippery skin from firehoses is one such detail. Who would ever think of that? Only someone who had been there. Smoke suddenly pumping out like a locomotive is another such detail. You couldn’t make it up.

– – – – –

Let’s return to the story. As we departed, fireman Bob McMaster had just seen the mother appear on the fourth floor of the burning building. Now:

Glimpsing the woman and maybe a child, he ran back to the truck and shouted at the driver to extend an aerial ladder, the mechanical ladder that extends from the truck. It wouldn’t reach.

Meanwhile, firefighters were scrambling to put a hand-carried extension ladder under Galindo. Hot smoke poured out of the window just below her, so they had to put the ladder to one side instead of directly below. Then it became clear the ladder wasn’t long enough.

The Fire Department’s 35-foot extension ladder reached only to about the third floor. So the rescuers propped it at a steep angle, almost vertical. McMaster began to climb.

It was about then that Cardona, 30, a slight firefighter with a runner’s build, was arriving with his company from Station 26 on Western Avenue near the Santa Monica Freeway. The company could not get in touch with the incident commander, so it began looking for places to put ladders. That was when Cardona came around a corner and saw Galindo screaming, two children in her arms.

McMaster was moving up the ill-placed 35-foot ladder, taking care to avoid pitching backward in the dark.

Firefighters are taught to stop well before the end of the ladder so they can keep holding on. But with the ladder still to the side and a good five feet short of the mother and children, McMaster kept going. He stopped near the top. His feet were on the ladder. One hand stretched downward toward the ladder’s top, trying to keep his balance; the other groped toward the window.

He told the mother, “Pass me one of the babies.” He could see her clearly, backlighted by fire, and wondered if she understood his English. But she was already passing her smaller child, Miguel, 4. McMaster had a sense they were working together.

Aided by his large frame, he could just reach the child’s skin. The sensation gave him a fresh rush of fear: Miguel was wet, perhaps from sprinklers or fire hoses–a nearly naked, slippery toddler swinging 40 feet above the ground.

McMaster sought something to grip, and ended up closing his hand around Miguel’s ankle.

Miguel dangled, and then in one motion, McMaster stuffed him under his right arm. “Just like you would carrying a football,” he said.

He can’t remember if the boy was crying. He can’t remember smelling smoke, or feeling heat, or hearing anything in particular. He had one thought: getting down.

A firefighter had climbed partway up to meet McMaster, calling, “Let me have the baby, Cap.” But McMaster wouldn’t hand off Miguel. He was afraid he would drop him.

Cardona had grabbed a roof ladder off Station 35’s truck, thinking it could be anchored to Galindo’s window. But as he ran toward the building, he could see the sills were too thick to fit the ladder’s hooks. He dropped the ladder as McMaster came down, and as McMaster handed Miguel to paramedics, Cardona glanced up.

Galindo had changed positions.

From the beginning she had been “taking a lot of heat,” as firefighters say. Now, with searing smoke at her back, she was gripping her remaining child, 5-year-old Lupita, by both wrists, and holding her out the window. The girl was hanging by her arms over empty space.

Fire manuals talk about strategies that are “incident-driven,” requiring improvisation. No one was thinking now, just reacting.

At the sight of a hanging child, a firefighter had jumped on the ladder. Cardona climbed up behind him. “I just wanted to get that little girl.”

The first firefighter got off the ladder at the third-floor window, and Cardona kept climbing, feeling more secure now that the other rescuer was just below him, bracing the ladder. He approached the top and his hands left the rungs. He was perching only on his boots, his upper body standing free.

Lupita was still dangling. Cardona noticed her eyes were wide and startled. He stretched out his arm and touched her. She too was wet and slippery.

Desperate for a way to grab her, Cardona managed to catch an arm, then a section of her T-shirt. He instinctively twisted it, the way you might twist a towel around your head after a shower, tightening it make a kind of harness. At the same time, he felt her full weight coming down. Her mother was letting go.

From the command post, overseeing other rescues, Assistant Chief Terrance Manning cast a nervous eye toward McMaster and Cardona. “That is an extremely dangerous operation,” he thought. “It’s like they are on a tightrope.”

The surroundings were chaotic. The fire roared. Sirens and radios blared. To top it off, onlookers and rescued tenants were screaming at firefighters to save Galindo. Many were so hostile and hysterical that the firefighters nearby began to worry things would get out of hand.

It was, Manning says, like one of those imaginary training scenarios they give you at the fire academy–the ones where they add levels of complexity until it becomes absurd, trying to see when you’ll crack.

Once he’d gotten hold of Lupita’s T-shirt, Cardona swung her to his other hand. She kept threatening to slip through his arms. He embraced her tightly. Then he remembered he was on the top of a ladder. “OK now,” he thought, “don’t fall.”

Growing up in East L.A., Cardona had always worked hard to maintain his childhood Spanish. He began speaking fluently to Lupita, telling her to hold on. She put her arms around his neck, and he worked his way down, sliding his one free hand down the side of the ladder to maintain contact. Partway down, Lupita began asking for her mother.

From the ground, it seemed to McMaster that Galindo became less agitated momentarily after handing off her second child. But the heat was getting intense.

Cardona handed off Lupita and scaled the ladder again. Galindo’s screams had resumed. The burning heat was pressing her to the limit.

Firefighters were trying to get a second aerial ladder truck in place. This one would reach the fourth-floor window. The ground jacks had to extend automatically to brace the truck; then the ladder would swing into place mechanically around a 180-degree axis, like the second hand on a clock. It was taking forever, McMaster thought.

Just under the mother’s window, a group including Capt. Rick Godinez was struggling to get a second ladder into place. Somewhere up in the dark they hit some low-hanging electrical wires. They had to back up and start again.

Cardona could just see Galindo’s face through the smoke. He knew she was too big to rescue as they had the children. He called out in Spanish, telling her to calm down, they would get her down.

Then the smoke around Galindo changed consistency. It became dense and started pumping out the windows as from a locomotive, a sign of sudden high temperature. Cardona’s vision was abruptly obscured. All he saw was blackness.

Something brushed his arm.

Below, about six feet from where Godinez and his men were still warring with the ladder, Galindo hit the ground.

Cardona looked down. He could see Galindo on the ground. “She’s not dead,” he told himself. “She can’t be dead.”

For an instant, everything stopped. Then the motion resumed. The firefighters tried to revive Galindo without success. It appeared she died instantly. She had burns on her back. By shielding her children in front of her, she had probably protected them.

At some point Cardona realized there was nothing else to do, and he turned back to the fire. He felt vaguely angry.

It was around then that the first “emergency traffic” call came over the radio. Every firefighter there knew that meant a firefighter down or injured.

In most fires in the old, four-story masonry buildings that stretch across the older parts of the city, fire officials do not order their firefighters to go inside. That’s because most of those buildings are vacant. The Palomar Hotel fire apparently was the first fire in a fully occupied, center-hallway building of this vintage since the deadly Stratford Arms fire in 1973, Capt. Richard Andrade said.

Most apartment fires, even some of the deadlier ones, begin in a single unit and spread. But this time, because of the large quantity of gasoline an arsonist apparently had spread, and an explosion thought to have been caused by a water heater midway through the crime, the building simply lighted up like a torch. All floors and the roof burned at once.

As a result, resources were stretched: Firefighters were confronted with people lined up to get out of windows and with unknown others inside. Had Galindo appeared at her window immediately, as most tenants did, she would have had a better chance of being saved, Fire Chief William Bamattre said.

Two firemen fell through a collapsed area around the stairs and elevator. Two other firefighters on the first floor were injured more seriously when fiery debris rained down. Other firefighters got them out; both had second- and third-degree burns but are expected to eventually make a full recovery. Fifty-two tenants escaped from the Palomar. About 30 had to be rescued by firefighters.

Cardona, Godinez and scores of others spent the rest of the night fighting the fire inside the building like many of the other rescuers. Then they picked up their equipment, showered and went home.

Three days later, Cardona and his peers at Station 26 met on a parking lot near the station house.

It was a Sunday, and what they were doing was strictly “not department,” as Cardona put it. They spent the afternoon trying to figure out a way to prop or hold a roof ladder on an extension ladder–an unorthodox and highly dangerous technique that they thought might have given them a few extra feet of reach. They wanted to know if it could have been done.

Cardona becomes animated talking about it, showing with his arms how it might have worked if they’d been lucky.

He exercises to take his mind off that night, ignores his headaches. “We were so close to getting her,” he says. “Everything happened so fast.”

McMaster, back at work at Station 35, is taking advantage of the meetings the Fire Department arranges with psychologists. Earlier in his career, he was the firefighter who discovered the bodies trapped in another notorious apartment-house fire in 1993. Despite his Marlboro man image, McMaster says he knows better than to try to tough this one out.

“We just put everything we had into that rescue,” he says. “We wanted it so bad.”

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RECOMMENDED READING:Here is another taste of Jill Leovy, this one from the World Trade Center, written four days after the attacks. Watch her powers of observation, detail, perception. See how little showing off goes on, how little pretense, how much integrity, how much power, in little more than 700 words:

NEW YORK—As they emerge, dusty and grim-faced, from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, rescue workers keep saying the same thing: You can’t fully understand it unless you have been there.

They mean the pile, the massive mountain of debris left from Tuesday’s catastrophic attack on New York’s tallest buildings. Long-distance television shots don’t convey its bewildering size and strangeness. At night, when the pile glows under powerful lights, it is a malevolent presence reigning over an unreal landscape.

New York Police Officer Mike Goldreyer stands, awe-struck, during a break early Saturday. Crews work for hours, he says, but the debris pile looks the same.

Throughout the night, generators drone loudly. Beams of light glint off the six-packs of bottled water stacked by the hundred on the pavement nearby. Streams from fire hoses arc high in the air. White smoke and steam billow ceaselessly against the night sky.

At its north edge, the pile rises from three stories high to more than six. Rescue workers say that when they get on top, it’s like entering an insane, new country with its own geography of hills and valleys. Hellish and insurmountable.

And there is emotion in every inch of the wreckage. Here are ‘‘friends, brothers, mothers,’’ says Officer Peter Shrine. The jagged gray bluff rises above the work cranes. Steel beams add flashes of yellow and russet. Close up, they are crumpled like paper straws, or gently curved like the hull of a boat.

Despite a real danger of shifting, the wreckage viewed from the street seems an inert, solid mass. Bent lengths of steel are tightly entangled. Swiveling cranes must yank hard to extract anything.

When they approach the pile for the first time, workers say, they need a few moments just to process what is before their eyes. Even seasoned crew members frequently spend their breaks just standing and staring.

Goldreyer, along with his bicycle patrol team from the Bronx, is among those working on this cold but mercifully dry night. He has been on the NYPD for just a year and a half. He has never attended a police funeral before.

Members of the force are being exposed to death on an unimaginable scale. Officers are retrieving body parts, escorting them through the morgue, talking to bereaved families.

Moment by moment, hour after hour, workers move chunks of concrete and sift through rubble. ‘‘You are just moving stuff from here to there,’’ Shrine says. It is a learn-as-you-go assignment. The ironworkers impress everyone with their ability to scramble across high beams, the firefighters with their broad knowledge of power tools.

‘‘I learned to use a rebar cutter,’’ Goldreyer tells his companions. ‘‘They don’t teach you that in the academy. I didn’t even know what rebar was before this.’’

The pile at night is a punishing environment of smells, noise, blinding lights and acrid air that instantly chaps lips and reddens eyes. There is the smell of death.

The Bronx police officers help remove the remains of six people, handing black body bags in baskets, relay-style, off the debris pile. One body is identified as a firefighter. A white helmet nearby is strapped to the bag.

At one point, even a search dog succumbs to exhaustion. Handlers put an oxygen mask over its face and administer an IV while carrying the dog out on a stretcher. ‘‘The smell is bad for us; imagine what it was like for him,’’ Officer Josh Kaveny says.

Although police control of ground zero is tight, a swarm of people come and go in the surrounding blocks. There are Salvation Army volunteers, fast-food workers and a constant stream of trucks. So many packages of food, clothing and beverages have been donated that stacks are blocking the sidewalks. Sanitation workers are called to haul some away. On one corner, chiropractors Gary Deutchman and Rich Nunziata set up benches. They offer free services to rescue workers with sore backs, convincing many skeptics to give it a try.

As the sun rises, exhausted firefighters slouch in the high platforms above their trucks, monitoring the gushing hoses. Workers talk about the attack, voicing support for merciless and sweeping retribution. A construction worker suggests an alternative punishment: ‘‘We should make them come in and clean this mess up.’’

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