February, 2013

The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

Editorial Humor

by Adam J. Wehrley

It barely missed us. A slight change in the course and timing of the meteor that exploded over Russia would have placed it in the skies above Clatskanie – well within the range of Chief cameras, and I am feeling kind of cheated.

The Chebarkul meteor explosion on Feb. 15, was a near-perfect news story. As the world’s scientists watched the skies over the Indian Ocean for an astroid in near-earth orbit, a blazing 10,000-ton fireball explodes elsewhere with a force 30 times that of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki, breaking glass in thousands of buildings and causing nearly 1,500 injuries, two serious.

The 500 megaton explosion was captured on security videos and car dash-cams which show the blazing meteor streaking across blue skies, casting shadows on the ground, before the blinding glare flashes the screens white.

As the cameras adjust, a miles-long trail of smoke and condensation hangs in the air. Minutes later the shock wave shatters windows throughout six cities.

The air burst explosion, at least 18 miles above the earth’s surface, registered a 2.7 on the Richter scale. Listening instruments 9,300 miles away in Antarctica picked up the sound, and witnesses report a flash of intense heat and the smell of gunpowder.

That very easily could have been the lead story in The Chief last week, but our timing was just a little off – about a million miles off.

Actually, about 938,000 miles, the distance earth moves in 14 hours, which is the time difference between Clatskanie, Oregon and Chebarkul, Russia. It’s my best (Wikipedia-based) estimate – I’m a journalist not an astrophysicist.

As small-town journalists, we do not wish pain, injury or hardship to befall our neighbors. We work diligently to improve our community, to highlight the positive. But on a Tuesday afternoon, with no signs of a great front page picture materializing… If something is going to happen, it might as well be showy enough for a picture and happen before nightfall on deadline day.

Please be considerate and avoid doing anything newsworthy on a Wednesday morning when I’m driving back to town with a car full of fresh papers. Non-injury natural disasters and accidents should be planned for Mondays or Tuesdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. for the best lighting and so we can get all the critical details  before presstime.

I am a writer. To me, the old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words is for people who don’t know a thousand words. But I realize that good pictures can make a non-story a great story.

In 1985, our current editor, was taking pictures of beams being placed across the Clatskanie River to form what in my mind is still the new bridge to the park. It was a good photo, legitimate news. A 60-ton beam was suspended over the river between two massive cranes. Then it turned into a great front page story with three large photos when a cable broke, the boom snapped off one crane and the beam crashed into the river. In a stroke of divinely-inspired journalistic timing, she caught the splash on film.

Do any of us think about it when we cross the bridge? Well, I do. Does it affect our ability to feed or educate our families? Nope! Is it a threat to the health or well-being of our community? Not at all. But I will always remember it as a great front page story – chaos and destruction, nobody injured, minimal lasting effects.

Heavy objects falling from the sky are always good stories, as are any huge fireballs. Even a little bit of broken glass will merit a few inches of space if you’ve got a decent photo.

Added up, the bare statistics of the Chebarkul meteor make a great story. There was widespread damage, but it was so widespread that no property was completely destroyed, and the meteor splashed down in a frozen lake, leaving an ominous hole in the ice with pebble-sized meteorite chunks spread around.

Divers were sent down to recover the meteor, but were unable to locate it, adding a sense of mystery to the event. I should write a sci-fi screen play with this opening. Was it really a meteor? Was it a military project gone wrong? Was it, as one Russian official initially and erroneously suspected, an American attack? Was it our first contact with visitors from another world? Isn’t this how superman got here?

It’s been 105 years since a meteor explosion has been this powerful, and the world’s scientists and amateur astronomers were all looking the other way. In this lies the beautiful irony of the story. Everyone who could have seen it coming was distracted.

It was all stunningly staged, with what magicians call misdirection. One astroid, big enough to detect, heightens the anticipation by approaching in a near-earth orbit. Everyone is watching. There’s a feeling of danger, but we were assured by the “experts” that we are not at risk. Then, out of the clear blue sky, in a thunderous blaze of glory, the smaller meteor steals the show, exits stage left and disappears.

Scientifically, the astroid (which never entered the atmosphere) and the meteor (which did) are completely unrelated. They came from opposite directions and it was just a big cosmic coincidence that they occurred on the same day.

Theatrically, it was a great show, perfectly orchestrated.

It’s impressive that the scientists were able to detect the astroid. There’s no reason to expect that not detecting the meteor is a failure on their part. Scientists had accurately predicted a near-earth orbit more precisely than ever before and they had reason to celebrate that accomplishment. The fact that an undetected impact occurred hours before their prediction came to pass is humbling. Just when understanding our solar system seemed within our grasp, we were reminded of its vast mysteries; that there is still much beyond our sight.

Other than a great opportunity for local window installers, the air blast meteor will have little historic significance. When the damage is repaired and the minor injuries heal, it will just be a memory.

This newspaper’s staff spends most of our time following local politics, school policies and funding, economic development and dozens of other earth-bound actions which have the potential to affect the day-to-day lives of our readers. Property taxes, public employees’ retirement system reform and industrial development have a greater lasting impact on most of us than the 500 megaton blast, even if the meteor had splashed down in the Clatskanie River.

But, man, it would have made a great-looking front page!


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