By Susan B. Markisz
It’s been bloody cold in New York City. Peter Oskarsson, a native Icelander working in New York, was quoted in a January 26, 2004 New York Times story on the arctic temperatures, saying: “I’ve never in my life been as cold as I have been in New York.” Though I’ve never been to Iceland, I’ve had to cover a number of outdoor assignments in New York City, and I have to concur with Oskarsson. Sadly, the frigid temperatures have contributed to several deaths throughout the metropolitan area, all of which were preventable.
One can only imagine what it must be like to have your heat turned off by Con Edison because – perhaps you’ve been laid off – and you can’t pay your heating bill, as the temperature plummets to the single digits, and stays there for 4 solid weeks. Or the landlord doesn’t provide enough heat to keep your kids warm and toasty so you rely instead on – unbeknownst to you - a faulty heater, which emits a tasteless, odorless gas and silently kills all members of your family. In one of the houses where carbon monoxide poisoning was responsible for two recent deaths, the meter brought in by the fire department registered 500 parts per million; even 30 parts per million over a prolonged period of time can be dangerous. One can only imagine.
Covering cold weather tragedies presents special physical challenges in trying to keep warm and the extremities from becoming numb. But even more challenging are the obstacles we sometimes encounter at crime scenes. In New York at least, photographers have been on the defensive since September 11 and are often at the mercy of the authorities at the scene to get access. In this space, I won’t delve into all of the First Amendment and civil liberties issues, which have surfaced in recent years for photographers trying to get access; that’s a story – a long one - for another day.
On a much more fundamental level, however, is the fact that photographers’ relationships with the police department and other authorities whose discretion we must rely on to cover breaking news, suffer from a PR image problem.


Antagonism between the NYPD and the newsroom has escalated since the terrorist attacks with the apparent perception that we are akin to news “paparazzi.”

I think we’re a pretty well intentioned group, with the objective to be able to convey a sense of what happened, or the effects of a tragedy on its victims and survivors. Perhaps the photograph we take might motivate people to heed warnings about, say, the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, or whatever it is that has brought us to this location in the first place.


Theresa Connolly reacts to the news that two of her neighbors, a father and daughter died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx on January 13, 2004.
© 2004 Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times.

Battalion Chief Dennis Munnelly spoke to the press after 6 victims were taken to area hospitals from a private home at 4279 Oneida Avenue in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx. Shortly after 7:30 pm, two of the victims were reported to have died and 2 others remained in critical condition. Chief Munnelly advised neighbors to purchase carbon monoxide detectors.
© 2004 Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times.







As I arrived on a scene in November where a family of three had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, most of the EMS vehicles had already gone away empty, leaving only a few police officers guarding the street, a couple

of bystanders, and Con-Ed workers and FDNY inspectors going in and out of the house - windows wide open - waiting for the coroner to appear.


Local newscasters were set up with their satellite trucks down the block waiting to do their 11 PM live shot. After shooting from my limited perspective, I asked a plainclothes detective to allow me to cross the street, which was cordoned off by yellow tape. He shouted “No,” and when I added a second plaintive “Please,” he shouted “NO” even louder the second time. When I asked why, he turned his back to me and wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence. A walk around the block to get to the other side of the scene would have taken at least 10 minutes, because of the bizarre street pattern and the manner in which the police had cordoned off the scene. If I had been a resident on the street where the tragedy occurred, I would have been allowed to cross the approximately 30 feet to the other side. As a press photographer I was not.  Fortunately, a uniformed officer, having witnessed his superior’s response, came over and told me he would escort me across the street in a few minutes, and he did so when the detective walked away.
The other side of the street didn’t provide much more of a picture. There were no victims’ families on the scene and the coroner’s van had not yet arrived; the Metro deadline was quickly approaching and I had little to show for my efforts. I knew that the picture didn’t have to shout “dead.” Still, I didn’t have much and it was 11pm.

I noticed that a man on the second floor of an apartment house adjacent to the house where the victims had died, peered out the window periodically at the going’s on in the street.
Except for the well-lit porch of the house where investigators were searching for evidence, it was eerily quiet, and pretty dark outside.

New York City Fire Department Investigators survey the scene at a private home at 1708 Popham Avenue & 176th Street in the Bronx where three people succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator which malfunctioned. There was no heat in the house.
© 2003 Susan B. Markisz

Nevertheless, I began shooting the silhouetted guy in the window. A good friend and fellow photographer standing next to me, realizing my flash wasn’t going off, looked at me astonished and asked: “You mean you’re shooting available light???” I said, “Yep, 1600, tungsten white balance. Take a look at that guy in the window. It’s not a very literal picture, but unless something dramatic happens in the next 10 minutes, that’s my shot.”
To my surprise, he started shooting without his flash, and then after a few frames, turned his flash back on, laughed and said: “ paper will never go for this.”

I was risking my deadline by staying any longer, and I started to leave when suddenly, the man I had been photographing, reappeared at the window, this time with an infant in his arms. I shot 2 or 3 frames and left. As soon as the editor saw the first picture I transmitted, he called to tell me that was the picture. In a case where, tragically, an infant had died in the house, he said, it made the photograph with the guy with the infant in his arms silhouetted in the window of the building next door, a quiet and moving shot.

An oxygen mask left in front of 4279 Oneida Avenue in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx by EMS workers on January 13, 2004 when members of a family were overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning, claiming the lives of two victims, left an eerie reminder of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. January 14, 2004.
© 2004 Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times.
In a carbon monoxide poisoning 2 weeks ago that left a father and daughter dead, and the mother and son in critical condition, the only way to convey the sense of tragedy was to photograph the neighbors’ reactions and the oxygen masks that EMS workers had left lying on the street and shrubbery around the house.

On January 13, 2004, carbon monoxide poisoning claimed the lives of a father and daughter on Oneida Avenue in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, leaving the mother and son in critical condition. A neighbor, Walter Sammon, who lives across the street from the Duffy family, went out and purchased a Carbon Monoxide/Smoke Detector this morning from Sears for about $50. January 14, 2004.
© 2004 Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times.
The next day, although this picture was not used in the follow-up story, we encountered a neighbor on the street who had gone out to purchase a carbon monoxide detector for his home.

Authorities who believe they have a right to prevent these stories from being told because either they feel it’s their duty to protect the public from the media, for their own personal reasons, should know that besides the fact that it is not their job, in this case, at least one person was motivated to go out and buy a carbon monoxide detector the following day. In all likelihood, neighbors in the immediate vicinity would have learned soon enough about the tragedy. But without media coverage, it would have been just another neighborhood tragedy, known only to a few neighbors and passers-by. Without the media, there would have been no microphone or reporters to record the fire chief’s appeal to the public to purchase carbon monoxide detectors for their homes. Without the media, it would have been just another quiet night in the neighborhood. Deadly quiet.
© 2004 Susan B. Markisz
January 31, 2004    



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