Idahoans at Disasters
Posted on June 28, 2020
(My regular column is suspended during the pandemic, but we’re running some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman early in my career there. Many are humor columns from the 1980s. In times like these, we need humor.)
The nuclear accident at Chernobyl has highlighted a startling fact about Idahoans.
The startling fact is that Idahoans have a remarkable sixth sense for impending disasters.
Whenever disaster strikes, regardless of the circumstances or the remoteness of the location, an Idahoan is almost certain to be there.
It happens almost every time. No matter how unpredictable the tragedy, no matter how distant the location, at least one Idahoan will be in just the right place at just the right time to represent the state and relay a breathless, first-person report to a waiting world.
Think about it. How many world-class disasters, calamities, catastrophes or crises in recent years have failed to be detailed in eyewitness accounts by Idahoans?
There haven’t been any. Or, if there have been, they were second rate and not worthy of an Idahoan’s attention.
The latest to uphold the tradition is Hank Birnbaum, of Sagle, Idaho. Birnbaum was one of six American college students who were in Kiev, Ukraine, a short distance from the site of the horrific reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Most Americans had never heard of Chernobyl prior to the accident, let alone been there, but Birnbaum had strategically positioned himself within a few miles of it. When the meltdown occurred, he was ready and waiting to observe and be interviewed,
“Kiev is calm,” the canny Idahoan told an anxious world watching on television. “When we left, everything seemed to be going on normally.”
Except for the glowing hair, of course.
Birnbaum’s account was reminiscent off the 1979 Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania nuclear emergency, which Boisean Teryll Lynn Schasse described in a dramatic telephone interview:
“You don’t know what’s going on here,” she said. “They said the worst thing that could happen is a rainstorm and a thick cloud cover that might cover us with fallout. I’m looking out of the window right now. It looks like rain to me.”
Two days later, Schasse was back in Boise, answering questions from reporters and providing Idahoans with an up close and personal perspective on the nation’s worst nuclear accident.
The most surprising thing about Idaho’s role as supplier of commentators on the world’s disasters is that the odds against it happening are almost overwhelming. That a state with a population smaller than that of the Seattle area would have a personal emissary to most of the great upheavals of our time defies logic, yet it happens regularly. It makes no difference where the crisis occurs, how few people are involved or how minuscule the chances are of an Idahoan’s being there. One invariably is.
The Iran hostage crisis, for example. When the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed by militants, Idahoan Henry Lee Schatz, an agricultural attache, was just down the street. Schatz avoided being captured by the militants, but was forced to spend three months hiding from anti-American mobs. He also was one of six Americans who provided a bright spot in the hostage crisis by escaping from Iran on forged Canadian passports.
After being questioned by the media and meeting with the president in the oval office, Schatz returned to Idaho, where he modestly told reporters that he was “just in the right place at the right time. Or maybe the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all.”
But it wasn’t all. The next hostage crisis involving Americans in the Mideast was last summer’s hijacking of a Trans World Airlines flight in Lebanon. Sure enough, an Idahoan not only was there but was in the cockpit!
For 17 days, the world watched as the plane’s crew and passengers were held hostage by Shiite Muslims. A key figure in the drama was flight engineer Christian Zimmermann of Cascade, who was quoted at length about his role in the ordeal and went on to write a book about it.
Though seemingly partial to manmade crises, Idahoans are no less adept at witnessing natural disasters. When an earthquake destroyed parts of Mexico City last fall, Saul Zamora of Gooding was in the thick of it, ready to observe and answer questions from journalists.
It’s an established fact, of course, that whenever a dam collapses or a volcano erupts, an Idahoan will be on hand to collect big bucks from the news magazines by photographing the event with a cheap Kodak camera. It happened at the Teton Dam disaster, the Mount St. Helens eruption, you name it.
So why are Idahoans always on hand for calamities?
The answer is obvious. We need the exposure. It’s one of the few ways we have to avoid being confused with Iowa.