The whole time, the woman in red was dying. She couldn't hold onto the helicopter rescue cable. She fell and flailed at the Potomac River ice. The helicopter tried again, but she couldn't grasp the ring till they'd dropped it the third time. Was it that her eyes rolled back in her head or was that the glare of mortal agony? Her arms, with frozen fingers splayed, slipped from the ring and she fell back into the water. She was dying while a triumph of technology, the helicopter, hovered helpless overhead. Then two men dove into the water and pulled her ashore for another chance at life.
She was one of the lucky ones. And for moments, yesterday, she became the human condition for those who watched her on television.
It almost mocks the tragedy of the Air Florida plane hitting the 14th Street Bridge and sinking in the Potomac to say that this Channel 7 footage was great television. Better to say that it was a great, terrible and human moment shared by all viewers as word spread of the disaster.
We go to our televisions now in times of tragedy the way our ancestors used to go to churches and town halls. We have to watch it over and over. Yesterday, it was the arm sticking out of the wrecked car on the bridge, the crewman standing on a skid as the helicopter took off, holding a woman by impossible and heroic strength, the boats prying futilely at the ice, a baseball mitt --did it belong to some kid who figured he'd play a little ball down in Florida?
It was unbearable to watch and unbearable not to, as the helicopters tilted down through the snow, blasting debris across the ice with their propwash while arms waved from the water.
Channel 9 had the long distance shots, Channel 7 checked in later with its brilliant close-ups, Channel 4 went largely with Marty Levin supplying facts and background from the newsroom. (Bulletins went out at 4:17, 4:23 and 4:25 according to claims by NBC, CBS and ABC, respectively.)
The images lostnone of their power, and made sense of the disaster in the kind of terrible ceremony that repetition gave them -- the flattened cars; the rescue ring skipping away across the water with the maddening, tear-bringing clumsiness of machinery; the odd, numbed, nervous smile of a naval officer who was in a car on the bridge when it happened.
"I heard this big roar, and everything shattered," he said.
There was the helicopter dropping so low that its skids dipped under the surface of the water -- water that, according to a hypothermia expert reached by Channel 9, would kill an adult in 30 minutes, a child in less. And those were the few who had a chance.
Other reports had eyewitnesses describing passengers still belted in their seats as the plane sank into the river.
A woman in a skirt and sweater managed to hang on to the ring offered by the helicopter, the machina ex deo of so many disasters in our time. Minutes before she had been, say, opening an in-flight magazine, and now she was collapsing into the arms of rescuers on the bank.
The riverbank looked so close -- that woman who couldn't hold on to the ring was only yards from it, and yet it was all the distance in eternity for her until those men jumped in in their shirtsleeves and pulled her out.
So many questions: What happened to the other woman in the life jacket who fell away from the rescue wire? Was that mustachioed man the firemen sawed from the wreckage of his car alive when he got to the hospital? The questions themselves were part of the terror, part of the being-there that television supplied.
Said Channel 9's Steve Gendel: "We apologize for the dramatic nature of these pictures, but the story is dramatic, and we haven't had a chance to edit them."
That sort of sensibility may show the best and worst instincts of the media. When the pictures are there, there's no need for editing. The cameras jumping around, even the failures of sound communication and the sudden picture outages guarantee an authenticity that any viewer will choose over the reasoned analysis of reporters and anchormen in studios.
There would be time enough for that later, as research fitted the tragedy into all the other tragedies.
For some reason, the ABC national news decided not to go with the most anguished footage of the woman in red -- footage shot, incidentally, by Chester Panzer and George Patterson. Like ABC, at 7 o'clock, all the networks were turning the disaster into history and statistics, and then we were off into advertisements and news from around the world.
Said ABC anchorman Frank Reynolds: "Rescue, or should I say recovery attempts are under way."
But for people gathered around televisions during the afternoon, when there was still hope for rescue, here was no other tragedy, much less news, such being the power of that raw footage.
After the first death, as poet Dylan Thomas once wrote, there is no other. And after this crash, there was nothing else to watch or think about as long as television had us there.