Ask a Staffer: In the eye of the fire

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Sometimes the reporting of a story becomes a topic of interest itself. This feature offers readers the chance to go beyond the bylines and credit lines to find out more about the reporters, photographers and editors who deliver the news. Reader questions and newsroom answers will be posted in the future.

To start things off is the staffer whose unforgettable image published Oct. 23 still brings comments, even in the midst of newer fires. Last Saturday, Kim Orifice of Temecula wrote: ‘I would like to find out how I personally go about nominating a photograph or photographer from your organization, for a Pulitzer. I believe that the photograph of the firefighters in their deployed shelters, by Karen Tapia-Andersen, should be nominated.’ The half-page photo showed 12 firefighters on a ridge off Santiago Canyon Road in Orange County, huddled under glowing aluminum fire shelters and surrounded, as the caption said, ‘with hot, burning brush that left them no escape.’ Other readers wondered just how safe was the person capturing that image. Staff photographer Karen Tapia-Andersen offers some answers to the questions.

How close were you? Were you in danger?

I tell people that I was 70 to 200 close. Which was a telephoto zoom lens -- 70mm to 200mm away. All of us [Times photographers] were saying that any time a photographer goes out to a fire, it’s dangerous. If you think it’s not then you don’t belong out there. But as far as being in as much danger as those firefighters were, no way, no how. I was never in the situation they were in. They were trapped on the ridge, I was at the bottom of it.

Did you find out who those firefighters were?

Yes. This was actually fun, considering they all made it out and I got to meet them all after. They all wanted to know, can we have a print? and I was able to hug each one of them. It was miraculous that they came out of that. They wanted to meet me, they are thanking me -- one of their mothers had left me a message on my Audix. She was crying and crying, she could barely speak. She was thanking me for caring and having concern for her son [the mother was aware of that sentiment based on an interview with Tapia-Andersen on the NBC Nightly News].


I’ve been with The Times for 15 years and I haven’t had a reaction like this since I took a photo of a ... dog. [Pet pictures do get big reaction; this was a closeup of a dog taking a drink at a fountain when the Santa Monica Airport dog park opened on May 3, 2007.] This was obviously bigger... people called from across the country -- Michigan, Virginia, Tennessee.... It was like capturing Bigfoot on film. One of the phone calls was from a woman in Minnesota. She wanted to tell me that she saw in the corner of my photo, in the flames, an angel.

To see the sequence of events that led up to Tapia-Andersen’s shot, go to ‘Burnover,’ an audio slide show by photo editor Bryan Chan.