September 21, 2010
Posted: 1050 GMT
*CNN's Sr. Int'l. Correspondent, Nic Robertson, filed this report describing the frenzied mechanics of chasing a big Middle Eastern news story*
As we dashed to Abu Dhabi’s International Airport last Tuesday evening we knew we had only a slim chance of catching up with Sarah Shourd.
We were frantically booking flights to Muscat and she was already in the air on a two and a half hour flight to freedom from a Tehran jail.
Sarah had probably reached cruising altitude, Tehran fading beneath the Royal Oman jet the Sultan had sent for her and we’d just got our tickets. But the race wasn’t over. Just as we were heading for security we discovered an earlier flight, and after a crazy and slightly undignified dash to another terminal we took our seats on a BA 777 as the doors were closing.
It was exactly the kind of adrenalin pumping journalism that this profession pitches you in to without warning. We had one goal: talk to Sarah.
We touched down almost simultaneously with her flight. She was getting the Royal treatment, red carpet, VIP lounge, we were struggling to confirm she’d made it.
We hung around in international limbo, afraid to go through immigration for fear Sarah would take another flight to the US. By now we were booked on every flight leaving Muscat for the next five hours.
We stalked the transit halls and lounges scouring for a glimmer of her entourage. Our producer Raja Razek had worked her magic and found a source who was searching passenger manifests for us. But no sign of Sarah.
We updated CNN live by phone before we get the call, she’d left the airport and would be over-nighting in Oman. Our next mad dash began. I was still on the phone giving a live update as we climbed in to a taxi and sped off to find somewhere to get a live signal out of.
We made for a hotel near the beach. Raja had used it before, it had the kind of high-speed internet we needed for our live shots and rooms that would guarantee a good back drop.
The adrenalin was still pumping as we reached reception, we had barely half an hour to check in, get to our room and set up for a live broadcast at the top of the hour. It’s moments like this you realize how slow check in can be.
Fortunately the receptionists realized our urgency and bundled us in to a hotel golf cart to race us to a room with a balcony. By the top of the hour we set up and ready.
Sarah had made statements in Tehran and Oman when she landed. It had caught US Embassy officials by surprise, the Omanis they said often kept such things secret, avoiding the publicity. Not this time. Omani TV was there as she embraced her mother and Uncle on the runway.
We kept our live shots going for the next few hours then got a couple of hours sleep getting up just before the sun for our prime time US shows. I felt groggy after too little but quickly focused as the live shot approached. The came the news we didn’t want to hear. We’d been bumped out of the show.
It was a night of domestic politics in the US, results were coming in and Congressman Rangel, a multiple term octogenarian representative with recently smeared in with allegations of corruptions and graft had just won his party's ticket. We would have to wait another hour to give the latest on Sarah.
How nice it would have been to have had that extra hour in bed. We all settled for breakfast too wired for sleep. And so the day went on, more information coming in to us. More live updates. Sarah Shourd was the lead story and it felt good to be in the right place to tell it.
By the following morning there was little new to report, it was unclear what Sarah’s plans were and we had to stay on high alert than miss our chance to talk to her. Never the less the adrenalin was gone. The race and chase were over, now it was hurry up and wait.
Three days later when the call finally came that she was on her way to the airport we were like coiled springs. Our plans carefully prepared ready we thought for any eventuality.
Sarah would make a statement from the VIP lounge used by Oman Sultan Qaboos. With our bags packed and in the trunk of the taxi on the way to airport we were desperately trying to confirm if the Sultan’s lounge had WiFi internet access. We wanted it so we could broadcast Sarah’s statement live. But no one could tell us.
After negotiating security we entered the rarefied air-conditioned opulence of the gilded exclusive departure building. US Embassy staff were on hand setting their equipment up, a podium and microphones to facilitate Sarah’s departing words. But there was no WiFi.
I got our Bgan satellite modem out and lined it up for broadcasting. It was ready to go, but there was no way to get a cable to the press conference room. Time was running out, Sarah would be starting in half an hour and our options to go live seem to have dead ended.
Back in the sumptuous hall more camera crews were gathering, It didn’t seem right we couldn’t get it out live and I was getting desperate. I’d tried an app on my Iphone designed to broadcast live over a 3g network. It had worked well in Abu Dhabi but now when I really needed it most the technology was let me down. It refused to connect.
I had one shot left. My 3g network computer dongle was buried at the bottom of my bag. I never go anywhere without it but right now with the clock ticking on Sarah’s arrival and my 3g Iphone app having let me down I had little faith it would work.
Two minutes later I was on the phone with our headquarters in Atlanta, they were looking at my live picture via Skype transmitted over the 3g phone card.
The computer and its tiny camera were about 10 feet from the podium. All I had to do was keep people from blocking it’s view. I put my phone on the podium too with it’s line open to our control room in Atlanta to improve the audio signal.
It wasn’t until after the press conference was over I realized how far the set up had exceeded my expectations. Sarah had kept her words carefully short talking for barely a minute and a half, but CNN had taken the whole thing live.
I’d worried about the audio but as the gathered press hung on her every word they the room had fallen silent. Her voice carried near perfectly, good enough for it to be replayed over the next hour until we got our main camera pictures fed in. The 3g dongle effortlessly speeding the quickly compressed data downloaded from the camera’s memory card.
Oh yes and the adrenalin. Kicking in again for the flight back to Abu Dhabi and more lives until late in to the night.