The phone rang at 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 31, 1997. I was fast asleep. On the other end of the line was Tom Watkins, an assignment editor on CNN’s national desk. “I’m sure you’ve heard by now Princess Diana is dead,” he intoned.” I actually hadn’t because I had gone to bed early. Then Watkins laid my assignment on me. It came directly from CNN’s hardnosed president, Rick Kaplan. He ordered a piece on the braking system in the Mercedes Benz Diana was riding in. Deadline, 7 a.m. Sure. I pulled on some clothes and dragged myself the 7 miles down to the CNN Detroit Bureau, which was actually located in suburban Southfield. Fat chance getting an interview in the middle of the night but maybe I could find a way to pull something together for a first run at 7.
When I got to the bureau I combed our tape (1997, remember) library and it was then any belief I had in a higher power was confirmed. Sitting on the shelf was a handout video from Mercedes Benz: “Safety systems for S-280.” Are you kidding? Like a parched pilgrim in the desert I devoured the shot list stuck inside the box and and feasted on the entry that read “Animation of S-280 braking system.” Now I had something to work with. Using the animation as the centerpiece for the package I was able to find all sorts of information about its workings on the Mercedes media website and assorted press kits we kept around the bureau. It wasn’t much, but it was something. I cobbled together a script and submitted it by about 3 a.m. Once approved, I used my sparse editing skills to produce the piece, then fed it by satellite to Atlanta for air.
The fusty Kaplan was pleased but wanted more since the network was in full wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy. “Keep adding elements to it,” were my orders. What I needed was an interview as to how lousy the braking system actually was and whether or not it could have contributed to the crash.
I had worked with plaintiff safety advocate Ralph Hoar in the D.C. area on several stories and decided to give him a try. Ralph’s company provided information for plaintiffs involved in various lawsuits involving vehicle safety and I was sure he would have something I could use. Normally, we’d get him to go into CNN’s Washington D.C. bureau for the interview then it would be fed to Atlanta where an editor would insert whatever soundbite I chose into my piece.
Curveball. I did reach Ralph. He said he could definitely offer some thoughts but explained he was on his way to Richmond, Virginia to see his father. Oh no, not just a weekend jaunt to see the folks. He said his father was dying and he expected this would be his farewell. Of course I apologized for disturbing him as he undertook this very sad task, offered my deep sympathies, hung up then pondered my next step.
Unbelievably, a few minutes later Ralph Hoar called me back. “I know what a spot you’re in, Ed. I would be willing to go to a Richmond TV station to do the interview.” I replied that while I appreciated the gesture very much I couldn’t possibly cause him to lose even a second with his dad, but he insisted…and did the interview.
With Ralph’s comments I now had a substantial package that played for the next 36 hours on all the CNN networks and was fed out to the affiliates. Kaplan and the producers were happy and I must say, I was relieved to have pulled this off..but not without the extraordinary help from Ralph Hoar. I ended up sending him a large gift basket from Harry and David and that seemed to make him very happy. “You’re a classy guy,” he said when he called me. “You have me forever.”
The epilogue to this is by September of 2001 I had left CNN and was the national auto writer for the Associated Press. I kept in touch with Ralph Hoar and knew he had been ill. I had no idea how ill. He died that month of prostate cancer. Even though I was based in Detroit, I asked for, and was granted permission to write Ralph’s obit for the wire.
And now, whenever Aug. 31st comes around and the world is thinking about the death of Princess Diana, I think of my late friend Ralph Hoar, who sacrificed precious time with his fading father to help a reporter who was in a “spot.”