The Digital Journalist
The First of the Last Rides
July 2004

by Monica Almeida

The day began as a quiet Saturday morning. I was sitting with a cup of coffee reading the newspapers when the phone rang, it was our Los Angeles Bureau chief, "Reagan's health has taken a turn for the worse, it could be tomorrow, it could be weeks from now. Just wanted to give you a heads-up, keep an eye on it." I started getting my gear together and soon after another call, "Our sources tell us it's very serious, the address is 668 St. Cloud Rd, you know, it's in Bel Air right off Beverly Glen." I remembered that years ago, the address had been changed from 666 when the Reagans bought the house. I knew that we were in for a long week of memorials and eventually a funeral and burial befitting a former president but little did I know the extent of planning for the death of this president. Ten long, quiet very private years were suddenly followed by a very public outpouring, 24-hour coast-to-coast news coverage and a media encampment in the parking lot of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. I quickly looked up and called every motel I could find in Simi Valley. Every room was booked.

As I drove across Sunset Blvd, and spotted the first satellite truck, I knew I was in the right place. I grabbed the first parking spot I could find behind a long line of tv news vans in the cloistered very exclusive neighborhood, walked several blocks and joined the large group of television crews, still photographers and reporters who were setting up shop across the road from the former president's front gate. I photographed anything that moved, vehicles entering or leaving the residence, the private security and LAPD officers who had arrived to keep us in line, the few curious onlookers who were as interested in watching the media as well as somehow catching a glimpse of history. These are the kind of pictures you take when you know you're covering a major news story but all you can see is the media horde you are surrounded by waiting for something to happen. All of a sudden news reporters murmured frantically into their cell phones, I called the picture desk in New York, a half and hour later it was officially announced, President Ronald Reagan had passed away. Everyone assumed positions across from the front gate behind the police tape that had been quickly set up.

The press handlers came out to tell us it would be an hour before the hearse would arrive to take the deceased president to the mortuary in Santa Monica. They were very organized. More police officers and secret service men arrived as well as several motorcycle cops. We were informed that our vehicles would be towed if we didn't move them right away. I ran to move my car and grab my laptop, knowing that I was tight against an east coast deadline and I would have to transmit as soon as I finished shooting.

After all of the scurrying around we waited. I wandered from one side of the pack to the other, hoping to catch a different angle but at the same time worried that I might miss something. The hearse arrived and backed into the long driveway as news crews broadcast live and the sound of digital cameras shooting filled the air. We waited again and the press handlers came out to tell us they would give us a five-minute warning before the hearse departed. Right on cue, a secret service security detail drove up, the sound of motorcycles revving up broke the silence and the hearse emerged as the first of many solemn motorcades began its sad journey. I photographed the hearse as it drove towards me, stretching to avoid a photographer who had suddenly jumped into my field of vision. I turned and photographed the back of the hearse as it drove down the narrow tree-lined road, an LAPD officer standing quietly by. "Did you get the flag?" still photographers asked each other referring to the flag draped coffin inside the hearse that we would become all so familiar with during the coming week. A new 24/7 news cycle had begun.

Photo by Monica Almeida

Photo by Monica Almeida

Photo by Monica Almeida

© Monica Almeida

Monica Almeida is a national photographer based in the Los Angeles Bureau for the New York Times.