The month February 1996 is etched in my mind.
It began with a week of intense drama when a senior business studies student at DWU was attacked by a shark at Madang’s Machine Gun beach. It was one of several attacks in the space of a month. I forget his name. But I think he was from Mt. Hagen.
The shark tore his calf muscle but thankfully he was rescued by other students and taken to the Modilon General Hospital . He survived but with serious injuries.
In the same week, our journalism class of 1996 was doing a block course on television and video production. I was fresh from six weeks of work experience at EMTV with Richard Kelebi, Margaret Opu, Elizabeth Paul, and Jacqueline Tarue.
I was keen to learn more.
The man who encouraged us to take up TV journalism as a career, maestro cameraman, Fr. Zdzislaw Mlak, sent Neville Choi and I on a mission to interview the shark attack victim in hospital. He was in pain but able to talk. We got the interview done. But in my haste, other pictures needed for the story we were going to sent to EMTV were terrible.
“Crappy shots!” Fr. Mlak said in his heavy Polish accent. The Polish priest was not someone you argued with. He sent me right back to the hospital with a camera, this time with Richard Kelebi. Within the hour, we got all the pictures we needed.
As we were coming out of the hospital’s main door, we were met with chaotic scenes and a flurry of white nurses uniforms and at least one screaming doctor.
All we could make out was: “Another shark attack! Kalibobo!”
It was like watching everything in slow motion. In the confusion and haste, someone said…” Put a stretcher in the bus. It was a 15-seater Coastwatchers Hotel Bus that had come to get a medical worker to attend to the victim.
It didn’t make sense. They put in a foldable hospital bed into the 15-seater bus. I stood dumbfounded thinking…. So if they put the guy on the bed, how will they get him to hospital on a bed that wont fit into the bus when open? Everyone was confused.
Then, someone who recognized us said… “get the students to Kalibobo so they can take pictures.” We were shoved into the bus and the driver dashed off. I was also confused.
Halfway to Kalibobo, we realized a utility was bringing the victim to hospital. We headed back not knowing what to expect. We got to the hospital moments after the victim was brought in. He was a tall Sepik guy who had been fishing at the base of the Kalibobo lighthouse when he was attacked by the shark.
Richard Kelebi stood behind me and yelled “shoot!” I had no idea what to do but obey and hit the record button.
The chaotic scene was almost overwhelming. In the corner of my eye, I could see the guy’s injuries. For a skinny 19-year-old kid, it was bloody terrifying! But there was no doubt the adrenaline as pumping like crazy through my veins.
The shark had ripped off the top of the victim’s thigh. Thigh bone exposed. No blood. How do you deal with that?
I followed with the camera. My right eye was stuck in the black and white viewfinder, so I wouldn’t see the blood. Inside the emergency room. The doctors worked frantically to revive him. There was a cop inside the room. The victim’s wife was crying. That was all I could remember as I worked almost instinctively. Press… 15 seconds record…. Cut…. 15 seconds… cut… 15 seconds… cut. I don’t even remember doing that.
Then, someone called me to my senses. The Hospital CEO, kindly stopped me. She said… “Son…. You’ve done your job, now you have to go outside and let us do ours.” I obeyed.
Outside, Richard came with a microphone and plugged it into the camera. I was still dazed. He had found the eyewitness. The eyewitness was also quite shaken.
We took the pictures back to DWU. Fr. Mlak’s excitement is usually expressed in a kind of urgency that says “nothing stands in my way.” This was before the conveniences of mobile phones, the internet, hard drives SD card and Google Drive transfers. We took the tapes and rushed to the airport. It was on the next flight out of Madang.
The pictures made it on the 6pm news. Titi Gabi did a special report. The pictures traveled around the world on Channel 9 News, ABC and Reuters.
My fate was sealed. My addiction to television news had begun.