Darkrooms…anybody remember them? I’m sure very few of you actually spend time in them these digital days although I hear there are a few diehards out there.
Anyway, the point of this post is not about darkrooms, but rather a special moment I had in a darkroom early in my career that I’ll never forget.
Tomorrow marks an anniversary of sorts for me. Thirty four years ago, I covered a major national news story that happened in my hometown of Livermore, California and it was what I saw on my negatives in the orange light of the darkroom late that night that I’ll never forget.
A little background. I was just a rookie, 3 years into my career working as a photographer for the Tri Valley Herald in Livermore. Major news just didn’t happen in sleepy Livermore Valley. I was shooting things that you commonly see in small town newspapers…ribbon cuttings, rotary meetings, high school events, youth soccer…shooting any major news was rare. But all that changed on the night of July 16, 1976.
That night the managing editor of my paper, Barry Schrader was giving some friends of his a tour of the Livermore Police Department. They apparently were interested in law enforcement and were curious about the Livermore PD’s new complex. While there, a call came in to the dispatcher…the abducted Chowchilla kids were found.
Chowchilla is a small California central valley farming community where the previous day, a school bus full of 26 children simply disappeared without a trace. The FBI were called in and a nation wide search for the bus, the driver and the kids started. They were found on this night buried in a quarry near Livermore.
Barry quickly called the 3 staff photographers who worked on the paper. I was the only one he could reach as I was at home doing laundry. Remember, this was pre-cell phone days. Anyway, in an excited voice Barry told me what little he knew – that the kids were found at an old gravel quarry just out of town. I asked him if the kids were alive and Barry said he didn’t know. So, I grabbed my gear and headed out to the scene.
It was dark and quiet when I arrived at the gates to the rock quarry. Just a single Alameda County Sheriff’s officer was at the closed gate. Nobody else was there. I was not only the first media member to arrive, but the first person there thanks to Barry’s early tipoff. Of course I was not allowed past the gate. The entire rock quarry was considered a crime scene and sealed off. I started asking the officer for details on what was happening and as is all too often the case, he was not revealing any answers. The foremost question on my mind was, were the kids ok?
So I made a few photos of the scene. I forgot how long I was there, less than an hour or so, but during that time, a few people arrived along with many more police vehicles and the unmarked cars of the FBI. Still no other media around! If the kids came out this gate, I’d have a rare exclusive photo.
Sure enough, in the darkness, a long string of police cars come from the quarry to exit the gate. I knew this meant something was going to happen so I turned on my strobe and readied my camera looking through the windows of each car as they exited the gates. If the kids were in the cars alive, I needed that photo. No kids. All the officers expressions seemed grim to me. I was getting worried about the fate of the kids.
Then, along comes a sheriff’s department bus from the quarry. This was it! The kids had to be onboard this bus! I started making pictures as the bus approached, and when it got close to me, I raised my camera high above me in what’s called a hail mary shot and made 3 flash exposures into the front window of the bus. I had no idea what I was going to get as it was dark and I couldn’t see into the bus. And, the sides of the bus had thick bars across all the windows as it was a prisoner transport, so no view inside those windows. Only had time for 3 exposures due to the slow recycle of my flash. And then as the bus exited the gates, the driver opened the door a crack to check on traffic coming from the right as it was going to make a left hand turn. Not a sound came from inside the bus. It was surreal…I thought the kids were dead!
Now it was close to my deadline so it was time to rush back to the office. The only publishable photo I had was of the sheriff’s officer standing outside the closed gates of the rock quarry. Not much of a photo but the best I had. What would come out of those hail mary shots through the front window of the bus was what I was excited about as I drove back to the office. But the thought of the dead quiet coming from inside the bus was what concerned me. Wouldn’t there be some noise coming from 26 rescued school kids if they were alive?
In the closet-like film processing room back at the office, I put the spool of 35mm Kodak Tri-X through the D-76 developer, and then a few minutes in the fixer and with anticipation, held the wet negative up to the orange dark room light. My heart jumped. There on film, barely visible were 2 of the children’s faces, looking bewildered, but alive. A moment in the darkroom I’ll never forgot.
All 26 kids including the bus driver were safe despite being buried underground in a makeshift dungeon. The 3 kidnappers were arrested in the upcoming days and 2 of them are still in prison to this day.
I never saved the photo, but here is a copy of the front page of my paper. Associated Press picked up the photo and distributed it world-wide that night. Exciting times for a small town newspaper shooter!