While covering elections on Tuesday November 8, 2011 I had one eye on the Ohio results and the other on State College, PA. With events surrounding the growing sex abuse scandal changing hourly I had a feeling that if we were going to go to Penn State we better go tomorrow and so we made arrangements to leave in the morning.
On the ride across Interstate 80 though we got word that legendary head coach Joe Paterno just announced his retirement in a statement that read in part:
“I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case. I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief.
I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: To serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today.
That’s why I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.
This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Between live shots we debated whether to spend the night in State College or drive four hours back to Cleveland but ABC was reporting that University President Graham Spanier could be out tonight so we decided to stay. We shot stories for the 11 p.m. and the morning news programs and were in the process of editing when we got word their would be an 10 p.m. news conference at the Penn Stater Conference Center.
I called my executive producer and said we’re going because it likely means Spanier is out. My story was already fed back so I said you can either use the updated information going into my package or we could dump the package and do a live shot on what happens. He decided as long as we’re there let’s just go live.
We got to the Penn Stater at 9:58 p.m. and rushed upstairs to the room where the news conference was going to be but everyone was still waiting out in the hall. As I looked around there was Armen Keteyian from CBS, Dan Harris from ABC all the big guns waiting to get in. That’s when someone I knew said to me, I hear JoePa’s out.
At that point the doors opened up and we all ran into the room, someone even shouting at some point to relax, don’t push. The Board of Trustees was already seated with the chair and vice chair at a table ready to address the media. I put our microphone on the table but there were literally so many of them I worried if it would be able to pick up the speaker.
Vice Chair John Surma did the speaking and wasted no time in saying that president Spanier was out. But then came his next words that Joe Paterno was joining him. As you watched the announcement on TV you know the audible gasp you heard but in the room it was so much louder.
My cameraman rushed with the video back to our satellite truck while I waited for the news conference to break so I could get our mic from under the pile, then sprint to the truck barely making the top of the 11 p.m. news to do the live shot below.
Within minutes of the announcement the news had reached virtually everyone in State College through twitter and facebook and soon into the streets the students poured.
When we arrived minutes after our 11 p.m. live shot Beaver Avenue was packed solid with students who within seconds of our arrival started running to get away from local and state police in riot gear with tear gas.
With order restored the crowd started chanting “we are Penn State” and “JoePa-terno” but when the chant turned to “Old Main” the massive crowd was on the move to College Avenue ahead of police.
There they shattered car windows, knocked over street signs and tipped over a live truck belonging to WTAJ of Altoona. Gasoline from the truck soon pouring into the street. At one point a flare thrown dangerously close to the pool.
In a moment though the thick smell of the fuel was replaced by the burning sensation of pepper spray as videographer Gary Abrahamson and myself were hit several times by the police spray looking to disperse the crowd, at one point taking a direct spray from an officer who was attempting to keep the crowd behind us from closing in as we attempted to get video of the overturned truck.
Pepper spray was one thing but when items being thrown into the crowd went from toilet paper to bricks and one landed a few feet from us, we made the decision to go.
We headed back to our hotel where we would edit through the night for the morning live shots that started at 4:30 a.m. We were live through the morning every 5-10 minutes with not just our station in Cleveland but stations in Tampa, Detroit, Kansas City, Phoenix and Baltimore.
This is one of our hits for Newschannel 5.
As we drove down College Avenue later that morning all traces of the chaos that happened just hours before were gone and by now the live and satellite trucks from stations around the country were starting to roll into town as we were rolling out, ending what was for me one of my most crazy and memorable 24 hour periods in television.