TV News Crew Recalls Terror of Bank Siege


Even condemned men are allowed one last phone call, Jorge Viera figured, so as chaos reigned all around him, he crouched against a parked truck and punched up a number on his cell phone.

After all, there was little else he could do. A reporter for KVEA-TV Channel 52, the Glendale-based flagship of the Spanish-language Telemundo network, Viera and chief cameraman John Guerra had unwittingly stepped into the cross-fire as the police and two bank robbers traded hundreds of rounds in one of the most violent shootouts in the history of Los Angeles. And when a bullet pinged off a light pole just inches from his head, Viera decided to reach out and touch someone.

“I thought I was going to die, so I . . . called my girlfriend to tell her I loved her and to call my mother and tell her I loved her, too,” he recalled.


Two men died and another 16 people were injured that Friday morning in front of the North Hollywood branch of Bank of America. Viera and Guerra were the first news crew on the scene, and footage they shot that morning was shown around the world that night.

On Thursday, Viera and Guerra shared additional video footage and spoke of their experiences in “En la Linea de Fuego” (“In the Line of Fire”), a half-hour prime-time special that aired nationally on Telemundo.

Guerra, 34, and Viera, 26, were on their way to cover a 10 a.m. media conference downtown when news assignment editor Jose Ubaldo ordered them back to the Valley to check out a bank robbery in progress. At first, the general-market stations chose not to waste their mobile crews on the developing story, sending helicopters to the scene instead. But that wasn’t an option for KVEA--the chopper it rents was not available until noon.

“I guess it’s luck,” Ubaldo said. “My crew was moving on the freeway. It was one of those things.”

So while the competition was stuck with soundless film shot from hundreds of feet in the air, KVEA had 90 minutes’ worth of dramatic video punctuated with staccato bursts of automatic weapons fire and Viera’s frightened narration. Much of that footage was re-shown in Thursday’s fast-paced program, which interspersed video clips from the scene with interviews with Viera, Guerra and dentist Jorge Montes, whose office is across the street from the bank.

For Guerra, a former firefighter who filmed commercials in Studio City for four years after emigrating from Chile, the story was the most gripping--and confusing--event he has ever covered. At one point Viera mistook the robbers, clad in black body armor and military fatigues, for the police SWAT team and left his hiding place some 50 yards away to do a stand-up report. When the robbers fired on him, he quickly discovered they were not the good guys.


“I never saw anything like this,” Guerra said. “I was very scared. You think a lot of things. You think, ‘Why am I here?’ ”

But neither Guerra, a Burbank resident, nor Viera, who lives in Beverly Hills, considered leaving.

“You know what? I love to be in places like that,” Viera said. “It’s not that I want to get killed. If I had the chance to do it again, I don’t know if I would.”

And that is why he will stay here--at least for another year. Viera was a freelance reporter when he was sent to cover the shooting. When he returned to the studios that afternoon, he was offered a contract as a full-time reporter.