The Digital Journalist
September 2004

by Phil Diederich

I was driving to Punta Gorda from Sarasota early Saturday morning, approximately 14 hours after hurricane Charley had passed over, when I got a call from one of our photographers saying he had been told by an official they were, "stacking bodies at a trailer park on Florida Street." It took me a while to navigate the streets as many of them were blocked with fallen trees and downed power lines. Most of the landmarks I knew had been altered beyond recognition and there were very few street signs to help guide me.

When I finally made it to the community of trailers on two small streets running perpendicular to Florida St., I saw a police cruiser and two Charlotte County Sheriff Deputies standing around. I wasn't sure this was the place where they were "stacking bodies", but I knew the deputies were there for a reason, even if they were just standing around.

I pulled over on Cindy Ave., which runs parallel to Carl Ave. where the deputies were, and began photographing a young man who was going though the remains of his trailer at the corner of Cindy Ave. and Florida St. As I photographed, I kept an eye on the deputies, watching for movement or the arrival of an ambulance. I did not need a photo of the deputies doing nothing.

Another still shooter and a video shooter with a small DV camera arrived on the scene. They parked on Cindy Ave. and crossed over to where the deputies were standing. I watched the deputies turn them away. At the moment, other than a family hanging around a trailer which had not sustained much damage and the young man I was photographing, there was no one else on Cindy Ave. I introduced myself to the still shooter and walked about 30 yards up Cindy Ave.

I noticed an elderly couple slowly walking down Carl Ave. toward the deputies. I made my way behind a trailer, jumped a chain link fence and approached them before they reached the deputies. We had just started talking when one of the deputies came to where we were and told me I could not be on this street. I showed him my credentials and told him I was not interested in photographing them. I said I just wanted to talk to this couple. The deputy asked the couple if they wanted to talk to me. The couple agreed and the deputy left us alone.

Celia Carr hears bad news

I learned from this couple that under the rubble near the deputies were the bodies of two of their neighbors which they discovered after the hurricane hit. This couple had also remained in their trailer during the storm and they were telling me about their experience when I noticed two women approach the deputies from the other end of Carl Ave.

I raised my camera and took some photos as the deputies told the women about the dead bodies. After a moment, one of the deputies came to where I was and told me I had to get off this street. I went back to where I had been photographing the young man. The other still shooter was also photographing him. I made some more images as the picked though his clothes.

I noticed the woman I had photographed leave Carl Ave. and come over to Cindy Ave. where we were. She told me her name was Celia Carr. She gave me the names of her neighbors who had been killed and told me that her own trailer had been destroyed. She was very distraught. She talked to some other neighbors by a trailer, then went back to the Carl Ave.

Jonathan Fredin, from the other local paper, The Charlotte Sun-Herald arrived, as did a TV cameraman. Jonathan told me his house had been destroyed by the hurricane and that it had taken him an hour just to get out of his neighborhood. Jonathan and the other still shooter took out their long (I think 300mm) lenses and focused on the deputies talking to Celia and some of the other neighbors who had now gathered on Carl Ave. After a while I wandered a bit up and down the street, until Celia made her way back to Cindy Ave. Jonathan, the other shooter and myself walked along side her, keeping about ten feet between her and ourselves, as she walked.

Celia Carr, her trailer home gone

When she came to the end of the street, she could see what remained of her trailer in the distance. She brought her hand to her face and began to cry. The three of us gave a few quick steps forward and started snapping. I had fired off four or five frames when Celia cried out, "Oh, please!" Jonathan and I lowered our cameras. The other shooter kept taking photos. I walked away. I knew I had a good photo and I was not going to rob this woman of her dignity.

When I drove by Florida St. the next day, I found a large TV truck in the exact spot where the deputies had been parked. Some of the TV crew were sleeping on folding chairs, others were standing around, looking bored, their bright lights illuminating the empty spot where the dead bodies had been.

© Phil Diederich

Phil Diederich has covered assignments in the US and Latin America, including hurricane Andrew in South Florida and other hurricanes in the Caribbean. He has been a photojournalist for over 14 years, freelancing for national and international publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, BusinessWeek and US News. He joined the photo staff at the Sarasota Herald Tribune in Sept. 2003.

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