Shot in the Dark

Three photographers on the graveyard shift shoot the Cities' dark side

It's midnight on a Monday in mid-November: cloudy and crisp, but no snow. WCCO-TV overnight photographer Tony Knoss steers his unmarked white minivan out of downtown Minneapolis to check on a tip about eastbound 394 being shut down--suggesting, perhaps, an accident. He has been holed up at the television station for an hour, editing a piece about Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson's nascent country music singing career, so he's been away from the scanners in his van,

which makes Knoss a little nervous that he may have missed a story. Nothing seems amiss with the freeway traffic. As he cloverleafs back toward downtown, it becomes clear what the story is about. Traffic is simply being rerouted around the Lowry Tunnel, which is closed--for cleaning. Another hot tip goes cold.

But out on the spin, he had detected officers sounding more agitated than usual on the Washington County sheriff's channel. He locks the scanner, mounted on his dash, into that frequency, while letting the one at his feet continue to roll. He gets onto I-35W northbound and heads for the suburban county, playing a hunch.

His instincts pay off. "Can you have an ambulance advise on a helicopter on that?" comes a voice over the channel.

"It's an accident," Knoss says. "It might be serious." What tipped him off is the variation in the usual clinical dispatcher chatter--the voices he had heard were loud and agitated. Still, through the fragments of information he has culled so far, it's hard to know just what might be out there. "There's no clue as to how bad it is at this point," he cautions. On he drives, into the night.

The 30-year-old Knoss steadies his nerves on a nightly regimen of Diet Coke, American Spirit cigarettes, and Ice Breakers gum. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and a small gold earring in his left ear. He's clearly feeling the adrenaline rush of the chase, the charge

of pursuing the unknown, but is doing his best to obey the traffic laws. Four years on the job at Channel 4 has yielded just two tickets--only one of them for speeding--hardly worth a mention, considering he puts 3,000-4,000 miles a month on the minivan.

At 12:39 a.m. Knoss hits the postcard-pretty downtown Stillwater along the St. Croix River, where the Christmas lights along Main Street illuminate a few falling flakes. He has the road to himself. "The drawback of coming out this far is if something happens downtown, we're screwed," he frets. "But I know nobody else is out this far. Shot in the dark. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't." "Nobody else" means no other overnight photographers from local competitors KSTP-TV (Channel 5) or KARE-TV (Channel 11).

Just north of Stillwater, a dispatch over the state patrol frequency announces that the driver involved has six prior drinking-and-driving-related offenses.

"Ooh! Yes! We have a story!" Knoss exclaims as he lights another cigarette. "That makes it worth coming out here. I just hope something's still there when we get there." An ambulance, with lights but no siren on, slowly motors by in the southbound lane--a signal that the accident may not be serious.

Knoss scans the dark country road, keeping an eye out for deer, watching his speed, and waiting to see flashing lights around the next corner. "Just keep going until we hit it," he says. "We should be able to see it a half-mile away." At 12:52, there it is: the road ahead ablaze with five Christmas trees' worth of red flashing lights. "Ta-da," deadpans Knoss. He pulls past the state trooper, a Washington County sheriff's car, and the fire engine, and parks on the shoulder.

What's left of the scene is a still-smoldering red Ford pickup. The gutted cab is as black as a charcoal briquette, and it smells of burning metal. Inside, the steering wheel looks like a wire; all that's left of the car seats are their metal frames. Smoke rises from under the dampened hood. It bears a striking likeness to the tangled wrecks on display at the State Fair as apocalyptic warnings against drunk driving, as if to say, "BEWARE! THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU!"

The truck has been hoisted out of the ditch where it crashed and burst into flames. Knoss shoulders a 30-pound camera and tripod and gets to work right away, shooting the vehicle from several angles as a tow-truck driver prepares to hoist the charred skeleton. Yellow-suited firefighters tramp around Knoss in an arm's-length dance familiar to overnight photographers. He is neither welcomed nor told to get lost. He passes among them, and they around him, with the mutual, tacit acknowledgment that everyone here has a job to do.

The official report on the accident will come later from the state patrol, but from the tidbits Knoss can glean at the scene, it sounds like the driver, by now en route to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, was able to get out of the truck and may have suffered only minor injuries. After some 15 fifteen minutes on site, Knoss gets one last shot, of the tow truck pulling away with the roasted pickup.

On the drive back, Knoss reflects on the gravity of the episode. "The only thing that makes this a story is the previous DWIs," he says. "There is a chance they won't run this thing in the morning because it doesn't have enough to it. But that's not my decision." Once back at the station, he'll punch the license number into the database to verify the prior offenses. From there, how the accident gets packaged and used is out of his hands.

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