Resiliency is the ability to stand strong through a storm, not buckle beneath the weight of adversity, problem-solve under pressure, remain calm even as others may not and, I would add, maintain integrity through challenging and shifting circumstances. The most admirable examples of resiliency I’ve witnessed include: getting through a tough situation with an awareness and concern for others; exhibiting the self-control and discipline necessary to stay focused on the best possible outcome; and, performing whatever role you are being called upon to take.
History acknowledges resiliency in the aftermath of difficult times, for sure. Those living through it experience resiliency in action through human performance and describe it as heroic.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President-elect Biden, told NBC News Anchor Savannah Guthrie, “We are going through very, very difficult times.”
I’m reminded of when Arizona and the nation experienced resiliency in action, live on television. I call it, “The Night Phoenix Became a Big City.”
It started just before 5 p.m. on Friday, May 28, 1982, when resiliency was tested inside the KOOL-TV studios. Here’s what happened through the eyes of 10 p.m. News Producer Doug Drew:
I had produced hundreds of newscasts, but for the first time ever, all of a sudden, my lead story was happening right before my eyes. Our 5 p.m. newscast was co-anchored – Mary Jo West reported the news from the newsroom, Bill Close anchored in the large TV studio in our other building across an alley. Only about 50 yards separated the two.
All of a sudden, reporter Sal Quijada burst into the newsroom to say that a man with a gun had gotten into the studio with Bill Close.
It wasn’t long before our television station was filled with police officers with guns, inside and outside. I had to take something to the control room, and when I walked in, I remember the strange scene, police officers shoulder to shoulder with our station management, with the producer, director and other technical staff.
Yet, everyone seemed so calm. That, despite the fact that when I looked into the studio through the glass that separated it from the control room, there was the man with the gun holding Louie Villa, the teleprompter operator, at gunpoint. Louie appeared to have some blood on him.
With a gunman just a few feet away, the mood in the control room, while tense, was serene. There was no yelling, no sense of panic. Everyone seemed to be in total control, from the police to station management, to the producer, director and other technical staff.
And the person who had the right to be the most panicked of all, Bill Close, didn’t seem panicked at all! I watched as he talked in a calm voice to the gunman, to the producers, to the police through a studio phone and eventually to the viewers who would be witnessing the hostage situation as it played out on live TV. I returned to the newsroom and knew for the first time in my life my lead story would be about the very people with whom I worked!
Meanwhile, Anchorwoman Mary Jo West was seated in her usual chair in the newsroom under the bright glow of studio lights awaiting her cue from the floor director to begin the newscast. “I’m sitting there and I hear in my earpiece, ‘You’re going to be anchoring the news alone.’ My first thought is Bill died of a heart attack. He was never sick and never late,” she said.
At about the same time, Production Assistant Nancy Petranka came running into the newsroom, screaming and visibly shaking. We later learn that she had come face-to-face with the armed intruder. She said she started to move away from him, “Then, Louis Villa came towards him and that’s when I made a move to run away,” she told reporter Mike Arra.
In the 1980s, television monitors rimmed the KOOL-TV newsroom. Studio cameras were positioned on Close. Also in the camera frame was Joseph Billie Gwin behind our anchorman holding Villa in a chokehold at gunpoint. Producers, assignment editors, reporters, videographers and writers had a front-row seat to the frightening scene through the monitors of the newsroom.
There was no question the situation was serious. Gwin had already fired one shot in the studio. He had a black bag and we wondered if there were more weapons, a bomb perhaps. We soon learned he brought his own television monitor so he could watch what went out on the air.
“As the news came on, news reporters [from all over the Phoenix area] parked in front of me, sitting very calmly,” said West. “I said to myself, ‘You can do this.’ I pulled out my acting chops, blocked out everything else and told viewers the news of the day.”
The news of the day, as it was broadcast at 5 p.m. from KOOL-TV, did not include the hostage situation. “At the end of the newscast, I ran as fast I could to the bathroom to throw up,” said West, who had been physically pushing herself all week in a police bootcamp for a series called “Women Cops,” which later caught the attention of CBS network management and opened the door for her anchor position in New York.
About 30 minutes into the hostage situation, News Director Bill Miller convened everyone who was working on the 10 p.m. newscast. He announced that roughly half the group would be working on a newscast as usual, without any mention of what was happening inside the studio. The others would cover nothing but the evening’s crisis. In a room full of news reporters, no one argued, no one challenged. Everyone got to work. West stood by, ready to go on the air at any moment.
For the next three-and-a-half hours, stunned, worried, stressed professionals did their jobs. In total, four co-workers were held in the studio; two were released by Gwin early in the evening. All the while, Close talked with the gunman; Villa remained silent and motionless. There was speculation that perhaps Gwin was high on drugs. The 28-year-old’s eyes and focus seemed to shift at times. He was nervous and sweating as his thumb held the hammer of the gun. But Close, who was in contact with a police negotiator in the control room, pretended not to notice. He called his captor “Joe” and talked to him as if he were a guest. He asked the young man about his high school experience and told him he looked like an athlete.
Later, we learned Gwin was mentally ill. Legally, it was determined that he was insane. “Bill allowed Joseph to be seen. He gave him his moment of fame and that made him feel important,” said West. “He kept calm, treated this mentally ill man with respect and gained his trust.”
Through the evening, Close engaged Gwin nonstop and learned that he wanted a statement read live on the air. Close negotiated a deal. He would read the statement in exchange for the gun.
At about 9 p.m., station owner Homer Lane made the decision to break into the popular television program “Falcon Crest” and Anchorman Bill Close, in his trusted news voice, read from the pages that Gwin handed him in a “Special Broadcast.” The rambling 20-minute-or-so manifesto warned of a world war and identified country western singers like Johnny Cash and Tanya Tucker as also aware of what was yet to come. Gwin watched the broadcast on his monitor to make sure he wasn’t being tricked.
Close held up his end of the bargain and so did Gwin, who surrendered his weapon. Again, remaining calm, Close casually, yet deliberately, slid the handgun across the news desk away from Gwin, as if he were brushing paperclips out of the way. Close stood up and shook hands with his captor. That’s when officers entered the studio. With a protective hand on Gwin’s shoulder, Close directed the police to put down their guns.
By all accounts there were many acts of resiliency that night. “I just praise Bill Close to this day,” said West. “That was one of the greatest things he ever did. He saved people’s lives. He was a hero.”
Drew’s account continues like this:
Looking back, there is one thing I remember most of all. Obviously, this was a huge story in Phoenix, and other Phoenix TV stations, radio stations, newspapers and even some national media arrived quickly out in front of our station waiting for word on what was going on inside. I will never forget what happened next. As the situation dragged on, the KOOL-TV station management agreed to let the media into the building that housed our newsroom so they didn’t have to stand outside. And not only did they let the media in, many of them were our own competition, but the KOOL management team also ordered pizzas for them. That’s right! Not only were the other media allowed inside, they were also treated to dinner and drinks. In addition, KOOL-TV brought in an extra TV monitor so the media could watch live what was happening. I can’t understate how incredible that is. In our business, getting the story first, beating your competition was a daily obsession. Yet, here, before my eyes, we were not only cooperating with the rest of the media, we were, in fact, facilitating their efforts, making it easier for them to cover the story! That sticks with me today, how we helped our competition cover this most difficult situation.
Also memorable, as the story dragged on and on, no one panicked. No one ever yelled, there was no running, no sense that one of the nation’s biggest stories was happening in our own house. I saw everyone being civil to each other. I will never forget that part, how such an immense tragedy, such a huge emergency, was taking place right before our eyes, yet everyone seemed under control. And most important of all, I remember how Bill Close’s calm response probably saved lives that night.
As a young assistant producer writing news stories about events other than what I could see on monitors above my desk, I was struck by how quiet, focused and caring everyone was in the newsroom. When I returned to work on Monday morning, there were locks on all doors leading outside and bars on the windows. People escorted each other to their cars, a few parking lots away. An awareness settled in about who was in the building or even lingering nearby. Phoenix, we had to face, had changed, seemingly overnight. It was indeed a big city with big city threats. A television station with workers running back and forth across an alley and flying in and out of unlocked doors would be a thing of the past.
What didn’t change were traits of resiliency that show up like heroes in difficult times. Resilient people:
Maintain a sense of control.
Are situationally aware.
Focus on problem-solving.
Identify as survivors, not as victims.
Treat others kindly.
Look for the win-win.
Cooperate and step into their role.
Express empathy, soften even, to gain an understanding of others.
COVID-19 is testing our resiliency today. It could well be considered our gunman holding us hostage, threatening to cause harm and calling the shots. We all have a role to play to keep ourselves and others safe. How well we practice and demonstrate resilience will be remembered by today’s young people who will tell their grandchildren what resilience looks like and how heroes behave in a crisis. QCBN
By Bonnie Stevens, QCBN
Bonnie Stevens is a public relations consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.