Thursday, November 10, 2011

Risk in Snowtober

          On Saturday afternoon, October 29, three E:60 producers worked on three stories at three edit houses - all near, but not on, the ESPN “campus” in Bristol.
         Martin Khodabakhshian was at Bluefoot Entertainment in West Hartford, Mike Loftus was at Northern Lights in Bristol, and Matt Rissmiller was at Anderson Productions in Bristol.  Each was in a dash to complete a story for the special “Risk” show - about extreme athletes and their deathly feats - scheduled for Tuesday, November 2.
         Snow began to fall.  It fell and fell, gobs of wet stuff, a record amount for Connecticut in October.  Trees bent and power lines sagged.  Lights flickered out and furnaces went dead. Though generators powered the campus, many neighborhoods and homes went dark and cold.
         Soon enough, “Risk” was something that crawled off the screen and into the lives of the three producers, and indeed, all ESPN employees and families in central Connecticut.  
         At Anderson Productions, Rissmiller toiled on a piece about Tyler Bradt, a kayaker who plunges down steep waterfalls.  A generator kept Anderson lighted and warm.
         Then Rissmiller heard the crack of a tree.
         “A large pine tree fell within inches of the post-production facility,” said Rissmiller. “The limbs broke a window in a nearby edit suite and caused some water damage.”
         The tree missed the generator, though.  The building had power.  The “Legends of the Fall” edit continued.
         Executive producer Andy Tennant stopped in, viewed the damage, satisfied his concerns about safety, and headed to New Haven, where he found his home with power.
         Over at Northern Lights, Loftus worked on “Kings of the Mountain” - about the ‘Red Bull Rampage’ mountain bike contest in Utah.  At 8:30 p.m. Loftus and editor Nate Hogan called it a day.  Loftus returned to his West Hartford home - minus heat and lights.
         “It was cold,” Loftus recalled. “I had to bundle up and use a lot of blankets.”
         Khodabakhshian, who conceived the “Risk” show, was in his third day of edit on “Land Sea Air” - about a high liner, free (ocean) diver, and sky diver - with editor Matt McCormick.  Preoccupied, neither thought about the storm.  But both received calls from their wives - stressed and anxious - so they broke off at 6 p.m. and headed home.  Khodabakshian planned to return later to edit the ‘tease’.
         West Hartford’s streets were shrouded, an apocalypse - Khodabakhshian counted a dozen trees downed.  In his car Khodabakhshian took another call from his wife, Shalom, at their West Hartford home with their three children.
         “The electrical wires snapped and are sparking like mad,” she said. “I think our house is on fire.  I called the Fire Department.”
         Moments later McCormick, at his home without power, texted Khodabakhshian: “WOW.  Do not go back to Bluefoot!”
         The Khodabakhshian family, without power, bundled up and hunkered down for the night.  Khodabakhshian tried to get his Honda Civic off the street, but its battery died, and it was plowed in by two feet of snow.  His four-year-old son became ill and vomited.  Khodabakhshian made a run for supplies with his 4-Runner, but only after the vehicle spun and almost hit the house and garage.
         Rissmiller left Anderson Productions late Saturday evening and drove to his Bristol home.  He lost power at midnight as he shoveled his driveway.
         “I was shoveling in the dark - awesome,” recalled Rissmiller.
         By Sunday morning the storm passed, but the temperature plummeted.  Tennant returned to the campus and beheld a post-apocalyptic scene.  Employees, spouses and children crowded into the cafeteria, seeking food and warmth.
         “People were showering in the locker rooms across from where we have E:60 production meetings on Friday,” Tennant recalled.
         But Loftus and Hogan returned to Northern Lights to find it now without power.  Hogan called Bluefoot owner Tim Horgan - by a stroke of luck Bluefoot was spared.  Horgan offered Hogan space at Bluefoot, at which point Loftus and Hogan transported an entire edit bay 20 miles to West Hartford and set up in an empty conference room. 
         By now Loftus was worried.
         “All of this is cutting into precious edit time,” Loftus recalled.
         Khodabakhshian was at Bluefoot on Sunday, too.  But as he worked he worried about his wife and kids in their cold house.  Shalom tried to find a hotel with power - all were full.  Later in the day Horgan invited Khodabakshian’s family to bunk at Bluefoot, in an empty edit room.
         “So we packed up,” Khodabakhshian recalled. “We got pizzas and moved to Bluefoot and my family was huddled in one room while I edited in the other two rooms at Bluefoot.
         “It was wild. Checking on kids. Encouraging the wife.  Making L-cuts with Matt.  Adding more insane-Asian-model shots with Tim.  Surreal experience.”
         Also sleeping at Bluefoot were Horgan, his wife Hillary, an E:60 producer, and McCormick, whose wife and kids had gone to New Jersey.  Hillary Horgan, who grew up in Florida, had spent the day editing ‘bumps’ on campus - but only after her husband had chauffeured her from their Avon home, and then to West Hartford.
         “I was too afraid to drive in the snow,” Hillary Horgan recalled.
         Tennant came by, and was amazed at the scene.
         “There were blankets, pillows, kids and bodies everywhere, on couches and floors, whatever space was available,” he recalled.
         Loftus chose to sleep at home.
         “Night was the worst, sleeping in a cold drafty house trying to stay warm and hoping that each day you would get the power back,” he recalled.
         Power remained out Monday for much of central Connecticut while edits continued at Bluefoot.  Shalom Khodabakshian and her kids found a hotel room in Boston, at Logan Airport.
         About 80 to 90 percent of the E:60 staff, Tennant learned, had lost power, and had their families displaced.
         Loftus and Hogan logged 14 hours to complete “Kings of the Mountain”.   At one point Loftus ventured out for food.
         “Lines were nuts,” he said.  “One pizza place had to turn us away because they ran out.”
         Khodabakhshian finished his edits late Monday, slept for three hours at his 43-degree home, and flew out at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday to Birmingham for the premier of his ESPN Films documentary “Roll Tide/War Eagle”.
         E:60’s “Risk” show aired Tuesday evening, without a hitch.
          The next day, Wednesday, Tennant recalled, “we had a smile on our face.  People told us they enjoyed the show, but no one had any idea what went into putting that on the air.”
         That same day ESPN President George Bodenheimer issued a statement to employees:
         “It has always been true that the people of ESPN band together to meet any challenge placed before them.  Its what has made this a special and exhilarating place to work.
          “The last few days of  ‘Snowtober,’ which continue to leave so many in the Northeast without power and heat - and their families in distress as a result - are the latest examples of this.  Schools and businesses are closed. Fallen trees and power lines dot roads and streets.  Municipalities have declared states of emergency. Amidst this turmoil, our people are meeting their professional obligations to each other and to sports fans nationwide in exceptional fashion.  Anyone consuming any of our content would have no idea of what our people have dealt with to present it.
         “From added meals for families in our cafes, to making showers available in a variety of Bristol campus locations, to the Kids Center going beyond to help families, to watching everyone pick each other up - the events on our campus these last few days have been truly inspiring.
          “My sincere thanks and appreciation go to all who have demonstrated the best of ESPN during a difficult time.”
         Nearly two weeks after the storm, with Connecticut power crews still making repairs, Tennant looked back at ‘Risk’.
         ““To put on a show so unique and well-produced under those circumstances was truly remarkable,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
posted by Steve Marantz on November 10, 2011

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