Live from Fort Jefferson

“So if we do this story why don’t we go live from Fort Jefferson?” That from NBC6’s chief photographer Mike Zimmer. Zimmer who, over the years, has been the architect of some of Channel Six’s more daring live shots probably had the idea in his mind from the moment he was able to obtain some exclusive video of Cuban Refugees in Coast Guard custody at the old Fort. 

Talk about a “live remote,” Fort Jefferson is 70 miles west of Key West smack in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Remote alright, you can travel there only by a couple of tourist catamarans or by seaplane.

Fort Jefferson was built to provide protection for the American shipping lanes into New Orleans and anchor U.S. presence in the Caribbean.  The 18 million brick structure  was a Union Fort during the Civil War and served as a coaling station at the turn of the 20th Century. The Battleship Maine re-coaled at Fort Jefferson before departing on the ill fated trip that ended in the massive explosion In Havana Harbor.

Anchored on a small spit of sand the massive structure with its imposing arches is a photographer’s dream. The historic Fort’s location plays out in other dreams: Cuban Refugees seeking freedom in the United States. Fort Jefferson is less than a hundred miles from the North coast of Cuba. The fort and surrounding keys are the target of human smugglers who for a big price drop their cargo on the sandy spits near the Fort. Once on U.S. soil Cubans are automatically admitted to he United States. Some come in crude boats but in the main it is the smugglers who make the night time runs to the Fort area. That was our story, how Fort Jefferson had become an alternative drop off location, usually Cubans attempt to land on mainland Florida.

Our game plan was to get out to the Fort, shoot two stories and bring the material back to Miami to edit. Our second story covered the 18-million dollar restoration at the Fort.  We took the Yankee Freedom catamaran to the Fort. That gave us a 5 hour window to shoot two stories. The Park Service had it all lined up, Mike and I have worked together for so long that we just went on what seemed auto pilot and knocked out the stories.  At the end of the day we did have a few moments to take in the big picture, the sheer magnitude of the Fort, the azure water, the red bricks radiating in the spring sun. The whole scene screamed live shot and we headed back to Miami dead set on getting it done.

Enter Rob Gibson the NBC6 operations manager who has brought us into the digital age. Rob was really intrigued with the idea and he had the equipment to get it done.  Rob had a couple of cases full of computer equipment , not alot of stuff, pretty portable. Since we had to hit a 6pm show we had to overnightat the fort, both the catamarans and the seaplane depart on in the late afternoon, too early for us.

We piled into a yellow Seaplanes of Key West Cessna. We got to the Fort just after four, off loaded the gear and headed up to the northern wall of the Fort. Rob laid out his gear, Mike set up his camera and I practiced my “in and out.”

Rob was having trouble. From my non technical prospectiveit had something to do with the satellitenot processing our signal.  I have learned over the years that there is not much use worrying about the technical side of all this. Let the experts handle it and Rob did just that. With seconds to spare he got up a signal, I went live and the rest is, well, caught on video tape! We were pretty proud of our efforts, the shot was a little grainy but the sunset flooding light into the Fort’s parade group was awsome. It was a nice moment for Mike and Rob.

We had to stay that night at the Fort, an experience of quiet and stars that seem to hang just above your head. It was awsome and the end of a great day.

We attempted to pull off a second shot during the next day’s 11am show. Rob again ran into a balky satillite but we were pretty sure that since we had a whole hour window to work with we’d get it done. But alas as it goes with news as we were trying to get a shot up there was a major news story breaking in Miami. We were cancelled, and within an hour our seaplane had arrived and were were all too soon Key West bound, lifting off from the anchorage to the west of the Fort.

The thrill and rush of coming on the air and saying “live from Fort Jefferson was one of those career moments and I was all due to the hard work and vision of Mike and Rob who know their technology and how to use it.



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