BALTIMORE, Md. – The biggest story in Baltimore Tuesday happened inside the headquarters of the city’s ABC-affiliated station, WMAR, but for more than five hours, the station’s reporters couldn’t get on the air to cover it.
The station was evacuated around 11:45 a.m. after an unidentified man smashed a truck through the lobby and screamed that he was God. Police began an hours-long search of the building to find him. He was apprehended shortly after 4:30 p.m.
All the while, WMAR journalists could relay information only via Twitter and the station’s website. By mid-afternoon, a makeshift newsroom had been set up about a mile north of the station — but the reporters still had no way to broadcast.
WMAR, known as Channel 2 locally, was broadcasting regularly scheduled, taped shows at the time of the intrusion. It continued to run on a television version of auto-pilot all afternoon (“The People’s Court,” “General Hospital,” etc.) while two of its rivals, WJZ andWBAL, covered the breaking news story nonstop.
Competitive tendencies abated for at least a few hours: WMAR staffers who witnessed the crash gave interviews to the other stations, and WMAR’s website streamed a simulcast of WJZ’s live coverage.
Station officials said on Twitter that every staff member had been accounted for. Initially the staffers waited outside at a safe distance from the station headquarters; around 2:30 p.m., a yellow school bus arrived to take some of them to a Marriott hotel in Towson, Maryland, where they regrouped and began to plan news coverage for the rest of the day.
Other staffers stayed on the scene to gather information.
Without access to the airwaves, “they’re using social media to get out their message,” WJZ reporter Derek Valcourt told viewers.
At 4 p.m., the auto-pilot ceased, and the station’s signal went to black. But WMAR, which is owned by The E.W. Scripps Company, worked with its sister station KNXV in Phoenix to re-establish a signal.
“Our awesome engineers are fighting like hell to get us back on-air from off-site,” WMAR investigative and general assignment reporter Brian Kuebler wrote on Twitter at 3 p.m.
Around the same time that local officials held a news conference to announce the suspect’s apprehension, WMAR was able to stream its own live coverage to its website. During the 5 p.m. hour, that coverage also started to appear over the airwaves.
It was raw at first — just one live, handheld camera and one anchor, Jamie Costello, who interviewed his colleagues about what they’d seen.
“Right now we are using our Phoenix station to bring you this signal,” Costello told viewers. “Forgive us for the sloppiness.”
After the police news conference, staffers were allowed to come back on the station’s property but could not enter the building. Mike Masco, one of the station’s meteorologists, said on Twitter that the staff would be allowed back in the building at 7 p.m.
On the lawn outside, an impromptu news planning meeting took place while Costello narrated the scene.
“We’re going to have news tonight,” he said.