On the morning of Wednesday, March 12, reporter Dan Rice was riding shotgun in the WNBC “Chopper 4” helicopter, roughly 2,000 feet above then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s apartment on the Upper East Side, when he noticed something strange.
For the past half hour, Mr. Rice and his ace Norwegian pilot Lars Andresen had been hovering above Manhattan, along with a handful of other news choppers, waiting for Mr. Spitzer to emerge from his apartment at 80th Street and Fifth Avenue. At the time, the governor was on the verge of stepping down. And the plan was to provide aerial coverage of Mr. Spitzer’s drive to his office on Third Avenue near 40th Street, where he would presumably deliver his resignation speech.
“I thought, O.K., this will happen real quick,” recalled Mr. Rice.
But as the four black SUV’s pulled away from the governor’s apartment around 11:15, it hit Mr. Rice. “When they pulled out I was like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, where is the police motorcade?’” recalled Mr. Rice.
The veteran heli-hack snapped into action. Using an Atari-like joystick, he pointed the high-powered lens (located at the nose of the chopper) towards the SUV caravan, and began providing a live play-by-play for WNBC viewers at home of what turned out to be—thanks to the lack of a proper motorcade—one of the more mind-boggling rides to hit the 24-hour news cycle since O. J.’s joyride of 1994.
For the next half-hour, with no advance police cruisers to clear the midday traffic, the governor’s impotent caravan inched along Fifth Avenue at a comically slow clip. Along the way, it got stuck behind cabbies, blocked by M.T.A. busses and cut off by the occasional delivery truck. At one point, the lead SUV turned on a flashing siren. But it did little to help. The mass of automobiles would go unparted.
Forty blocks and an eternity later, Mr. Spitzer’s entourage turned onto 40th Street, at which point Mr. Rice momentarily lost his shot.
“Usually with a high-speed chase, you’re like, oh, we’re going to lose this thing,” said Mr. Rice. “But we came around and—thank God the traffic was heavy—they were waiting for the light! The only time we lost him again was when they pulled into the garage.”
Just as Mr. Simpson’s tortured ride down the featureless highways of Southern California had captured a certain existential angst of a world with endless offramps and no place to go, Mr. Spitzer’s claustrophobic trip through the Manhattan traffic seemed to capture the fuck-it-I’m-moving-to-Portland feeling of being rendered suddenly and maddeningly powerless by the city.
“It’s probably the worst moment of his life, and all he wants is to get it over with as quick as he can, and he can’t get through the midtown traffic,” said Mr. Rice. “He became one of us.”
As it turned out, the Embouteillage de Spitzer kicked off what has been an unusually high-profile week for New York’s typically unheralded helicopter reporters—a group that includes not only Mr. Rice, but also his wife, Shannon Sohn, the afternoon helicopter reporter for WABC.
Three days after the driving-Mr.-Spitzer coverage, Mr. Rice and his wife were shopping at a Sam’s Club near their home in western New Jersey when he got word that a crane had collapsed on the East Side of Manhattan. Mr. Rice, who was on duty (his wife was not), raced back to the airport in Linden, N.J., where all of the New York news choppers rest between traffic reports and breaking news.
Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Rice and his competitors were buzzing over the disaster zone, providing jaw-dropping shots of the destruction.
“That’s something I won’t forget: a piece of a crane lying on an apartment building, seeing how it smashed a building a full block away,” said Mr. Rice. “How in the world did something like that happen? When you see it from above, it just kind of blows your mind.”