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[VIDEO] Local wins Emmy for breaking news coverage

Thursday, Jun. 26 | By Hannah Dellinger
When Calverton resident Vanessa Koolhof went to work on Sept. 16, 2013 she thought that it would be a day like any other. Then she got the call: there was an active shooter at the Washington Navy Yard.

Koolhof has worked as a news photographer for ABC7/WJLA for the past 10 years. On the day of the Navy Yard shooting she was on standby for breaking news. That morning, she did what she does every day: get to the story to get the shot. Koolhof and the rest of the WJLA morning news team recently won an Emmy for their breaking news coverage of the shooting.

“I never really thought about going after an award or anything,” said Koolhof. “It just was the story. That’s our job. We document what’s going on. We inform people as to what’s going on in the world around them. I guess it’s kinda nice to be appreciated for doing that well.”

Koolhof was the first photographer on the scene and captured powerful images that other television news outlets couldn't match.

On that day, Aaron Alexis shot and killed 12 people, and injured three others. His rampage, which started around 8:20 a.m., ended an hour later when he was killed by police.

She remembers immediately hopping in her assigned microwave live news van and fearing that since rush hour traffic would make the trip across the 14th Street bridge into a 45-minute crawl.
To her amazement, traffic was moving steadily and she got across in 15 minutes.

“Things were jammed up as you can imagine with emergency response vehicles and stuff,” she said. “But I kinda knew from going through Sept. 11 that the cops were gonna be way too busy dealing with an active shooter to worry about me breaking a few traffic rules. So I just tucked in behind a couple of them and went down the wrong side of the road and found myself right across from the entrance to the Navy yard.”

Koolhof set up her truck’s satellite signal and her camera. She started rolling and transmitting footage to the station right away.

Since she was the only photographer on the scene, WJLA’s cable channel, News Channel 8, ABC network and CNN picked up the footage. No one else could get close enough to the scene.
“The perimeter ended up closing in around me, because I got there so fast,” said Koolhof. “It just worked out that way.”

Because she was able to get right next to the action, Koolhof captured dramatic and chilling scenes on camera.

“I [was able to capture] the helicopter lowering a SWAT Team member onto the roof of the building,” she said. “I remember you could see in the basket the silhouette of his automatic weapon. He went in and started to evacuate victims to the roof and they were taking the victims up in the basket and flying them to the hospital.”

Koolhof said that in her 23 years as a photojournalist, she never thought that she’d win an Emmy. Going to the award ceremony on June 14 was a surreal experience for her.
“I was pretty nervous,” she admitted.

Koolhof was taken aback by the glitz and the glamour of the event. She said that getting her picture taken on the red carpet was like a dream.

She joked that by the time that the announcers got around to her category around 10 p.m., she was barely awake, since she is accustomed to waking up at 1:30 a.m. every morning for her news shift.

When the time came to hear the winner, Koolhof made her way downstairs to await the results with the rest of the news team.

“We went down there and my heart kinda went down in my stomach and my knees were shaking a bit,” she said. “Then when they said that the winner was WJLA for the Navy Yard shooting coverage I was kinda a little in awe, just in shock a little bit.

“One of the other photographers grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me and said, ‘Here we go. We’re going up there. Let’s go.’ It was an amazing feeling, it really was. It’s a wonderful thing to happen, I never thought it would.”

On top of the Emmy, WJLA’s breaking news coverage also won a regional and a national Edward R. Murrow award.

While the recognition is appealing, Koolhof said that the rush and violence of the shooting still haunts her.

“It was a terrible tragedy and I kinda have that little pang where I go, ‘Gee, I kinda feel guilty about winning an award for such a tragedy,’” she said. “So many people lost their lives. So many families are heartbroken.”

Koolhof said that one of the greatest challenges of her job is to walk away at the end of a shift and not be affected by the terrible things that she bears witness too.

“I think the news business after so many years does kind of get to you a little bit,” she said. “You have to find a nice balance.”

The balance that Koolhof has made for herself is thanks to her farm and animals. She said that her cattle, horses and dogs give her relief from the stress.

“At some point I’d like to retire and just live here on my farm and raise cattle and have my horses,” she said.

Until she is ready to retire, Koolhof will continue to do what she did the day of the Nay Yard shooting: observe and record events that the public want and need to know about by any means necessary.

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