Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reporter recalls Moscone, Milk assassinations

Former Chron reporter Duffy Jennings (pictured) has written a riveting, minute-by-minute account of the moments after the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk 30 years ago at San Francisco City Hall. Unlike other retrospective pieces on the killings, Jennings tells how reporters reacted to the horrifying news. HIs piece appears on page 1 of the Chron today and here are a few paragraphs:
    This is so unreal, so confusing, I think. Why won't they tell us anything? I wonder if this is connected to the mass suicides of the Peoples Temple cult at Jonestown, Guyana, only nine days before.

    Just then, a side door to the mayor's office opens and two coroner's aides wheel out a gurney with a shrouded corpse strapped to it, heading toward the elevator. Surprisingly, Channel 7 cameraman Al Bullock squeezes into the elevator with them, dutifully filming the transfer down to the medical examiner's van parked outside.

    I dash across the building to the supervisors' suite of offices on the Van Ness Avenue side, where about two dozen reporters and photographers are gathered outside the main door, also guarded by uniformed officers.

    Zane and two other Chronicle reporters, George Draper and Ralph Craib, are there with [Examiner reporter K. Connie] Kang. So are Barbara Taylor and Jim Hamblin from KCBS, KYA radio reporter Larry Brownell and news director Greg Jarrett, KPIX-TV newsman Ed Arnow, Dick Leonard from KGO radio, Bob McCormick from KFRC, [Channel 7 reporter Peter] Cleaveland and a dozen others.

    We collect in small knots, compare notes, what's known for sure. Two men are dead, police have now confirmed, but no names are disclosed. Fretful minutes pass while detectives scuttle by grim-faced and silent.


    [Dianne] Feinstein stops at the top of the stairwell. She is ashen-faced, staring straight ahead. I can't remember ever seeing a more horrified expression. Looking over the anxious group of reporters in front of her, Feinstein fixes her gaze on me, her eyes drilling into mine as if we're having a private interview.

    Years later, in an interview with The Chronicle, Feinstein recalled that moment. "I remember going out and making an announcement," she said. "I'll never forget Duffy Jennings, for some reason. I saw Duffy, and I don't know why, but I will never forget his eyes, the eyes of that group, the press and others. It was like the world stopped."

    She is clearly steeling herself for what she is about to say. We all fall quiet. In the hush, the only sound is that of shutters click-click-clicking. Lights atop TV cameras are ablaze, bleaching the entire scene. I try to scribble notes, but my hands are shaking.

    "As president of the Board of Supervisors," she begins, her voice weak and trembling, "... it's my duty to make this announcement." She pauses, inhales deeply, exhales. "Both Mayor Moscone ... and Supervisor Harvey Milk ... have been shot ... and killed."

    "JESUS CHRIST!" Zane yells. "OH MY GOD!" shouts McCormick. A collective gasp goes up, an outburst of audible shock and horror I've never heard from veteran newspeople, inured as they are to executions, war, riots, plane crashes. All around us, city workers shudder in disbelief, some sobbing.

    Feinstein continues.

    "The suspect ... is Supervisor Dan White."

    Without another word, she and the chief turn and walk back inside her office.
Jennings is a Bay Area public relations consultant and freelance writer.

(Photo credits: top, Mike Kepka, Chron; middle, bottom Chronicle file)

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