When police, fire and emergency medical personnel in northwestern Vermont roll up to the scene of a house fire, bank robbery or serious car accident, they can expect to see a scruffy-bearded man with a video camera on his right shoulder. He's freelance videographer Dave St. Pierre, and he often gets to the scene before the first responders do.
Most Vermonters have never heard of St. Pierre, let alone seen him on their TV screens. He doesn't drive a company rig, nor does he sport the neatly coiffed hair or snazzy suits that are typical of television news reporters. In fact, the 58-year-old St. Albans native looks like he'd be more at home milking Holsteins or wielding a chain saw on a logging site — two jobs that he still works to help pay the bills — than narrating the latest local disaster.
But anyone who regularly watches the nightly news on WCAX-TV or reads the St. Albans Messenger has seen the images St. Pierre captures with his camera. For more than two decades, he and his wife and assistant, Donna, have kept vigilant ears tuned to their five emergency radio scanners — "two in the kitchen, one on him, one in the bedroom and one in the truck," Donna lists with an exasperated sigh. Their aim: to catch breaking stories first. Then St. Pierre gets rolling regardless of the weather, at any hour of day or night, to snag the pictures no one else will.
In an age when most broadcast journalists and their crews have college degrees and formal training in the increasingly sophisticated tools of their trade, the St. Pierres are decidedly old school. With just a high school diploma, Dave is a practically self-taught videographer. He does none of his own writing or video editing, nor, he admits, is he adept with computers.
St. Pierre's forte is being in the right place at the right time, capturing compelling images and recording the occasional on-the-fly interview with a state trooper or fire chief. Those qualities have made him a reliable resource for both the Messenger and the Channel 3 news team.
"When we're all sleeping, he's out working hard. That's Dave," says Anson Tebbetts, WCAX's news director, who runs St. Pierre's images at least once a week. "We can't be in all the places at the right time. He has a wonderful knack for getting to a place quickly and getting [that footage] right back to us."
Emerson Lynn, editor and copublisher of the St. Albans Messenger, who's worked with St. Pierre for years, agrees.
"Dave's got a heart of gold. He wouldn't hurt a fly," Lynn says. "He has provided me and the Messenger and our readers an invaluable service for a very long time."
St. Pierre stumbled into his news career almost by accident. In August 1990, he was listening to a police scanner when several Franklin County fire departments were dispatched to a large blaze at Fairfax Salvage & Repair. St. Pierre made a spur-of-the-moment decision to race to the scene with a video camera. He and Donna — who would marry in 1994 — had just purchased it for their new business of filming weddings and anniversary parties.
"We decided to go. I don't know why, but we did," recalls St. Pierre in an interview in St. Albans.
That decision proved fortuitous. Once the fire was under control, St. Pierre was approached by a couple of Fairfax firefighters who asked him what he planned to do with the footage. He admitted he had no idea. One firefighter suggested St. Pierre try selling it to a Burlington-area TV station. After Channel 22 passed, the couple drove to Channel 3 in South Burlington, where they had better luck.
Although the video was a bit shaky, it caught the attention of veteran WCAX news photographer Bob Davis. According to St. Pierre, Davis sat down with him for an hour or two, showed him how the images get loaded and edited for broadcast, and offered him tips on how to improve his work in the future. Davis also introduced St. Pierre to Marselis Parsons, then the station's news director, who suggested the couple call WCAX first when they shot anything potentially newsworthy.
Dave and Donna left Channel 3 with a $40 check for their original videotape and assumed that would be the end of it. But during their drive home, Dave heard on his portable radio that several fire departments were being dispatched to a major barn fire at the Howrigan farm in Fairfield. The couple sped to the scene and started filming.
"We knew the area and knew how to get there fast," Donna recalls. "Dave got a real tearjerker — a firefighter saving a calf from going back in [to the barn]. Everybody complimented him on that one."
Minutes before the 6 p.m. newscast, the couple showed up at WCAX with their footage. Although St. Pierre remembers Parsons being "a little irritated" that he hadn't phoned first, the barn-fire footage was featured later that night, and St. Pierre's career was born.
In the years since, he has shot countless disasters: fires, car wrecks, plane crashes, police standoffs, drug busts, bomb threats, shootings and hazardous-materials scenes. The St. Pierres' coverage has taken them well beyond Franklin County — to Rutland, St. Johnsbury and northern New York. Often they race to multiple scenes in a single day. Donna estimates that they put more than 100,000 miles a year on their 2002 Chevy Avalanche, which is now on its second engine.
"I got probably 5,000 videotapes at home," Dave says.
"Too many," Donna adds, rolling her eyes.
Things haven't always gone smoothly at the scene, Dave St. Pierre admits. In the early days of his reporting, some police and firefighters were skeptical of his claim to work for a media outlet, given that he always showed up in his own vehicle. (These days, his truck is clearly marked with emergency flashers and a PRESS sticker on the windshield; he carries credentials from WCAX.)
Once St. Pierre ran afoul of border guards when he accidentally crossed into Canada while videotaping a fire at the duty-free shop. Luckily, a Franklin County emergency responder vouched for St. Pierre's identity and saved him hours in the custody of the Canadian authorities.
"I no longer go to Canada, not since 9/11," St. Pierre says. "It's too hard now."
The St. Pierres have also taken flack from distraught victims, some of whom didn't appreciate the attention.
"I will always be fair and courteous, OK? But I've been threatened on scenes, and been called more names than there are words in the dictionary," St. Pierre says. Once, he recalls, a woman slapped him for filming the scene of a car accident in which her daughter had just been killed.
"She was just angry," he says without a trace of animus. "I'm not the enemy. I just try to help people."
"People think that we're insensitive," Donna adds. "But they don't realize that we [can] even cover our own families' tragedies and not know it."
Indeed, Dave St. Pierre once raced to the scene of a fatal head-on collision on Interstate 89 that was caused by a driver traveling in the wrong direction. Only after filming the accident scene did he learn that the victim was Donna's second cousin. Later, he had to break the news to her.
These days, St. Pierre rarely encounters trouble with emergency responders, since most of them know him by name and understand why he's there.
"He's a really good guy, with a big heart," says Lt. John Flannigan, the St. Albans station commander for the Vermont State Police. "His intentions are always good. I don't know anyone else in the state who's quite like him."
Randy Swann, assistant fire chief with the St. Albans Town Volunteer Fire Department and driver of a tow truck, agrees.
"I run wreckers at all hours of the day and night, and when something big is happening, he's there," Swann says. "Put it this way: If it wasn't for Dave St. Pierre's pictures, no news in Franklin County would ever get reported."
Swann points out that St. Pierre has helped out not just his own department but other emergency agencies, too, as well as private attorneys and insurance companies. St. Pierre routinely provides them with videos — free of charge — when they're needed in court cases or accident or arson investigations.
"He's actually helped out Franklin County a lot," Swann says. "We've even invited him to some of our Christmas parties."
St. Pierre's passion for racing to the scenes of mayhem has come at a price. In their 21 years of marriage, the St. Pierres have never taken a vacation, or even a day off.
"We didn't even take a honeymoon when we got married," Donna says. "We covered two stories on our wedding night — a car accident and a house fire."
Donna looks on the bright side: At least she didn't have to wear her wedding dress to either one. "Thank God everything waited until after our reception," she says with a laugh.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Breaking Bad News"
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.