July 16, 2014: We faced a crisis Wednesday morning.
A water pipe burst above a small office that is effectively headquarters for “The Digs.” Water poured down on our computers, scanners and hard drives.
Most alarming, however, was the condition of several files of pictures set aside to be digitized. They were soaking in a pool of yellow, brackish liquid.
Immediate panic required action. We sloshed through the flooded room, lifted the files and carried them to safety, leaving a stream of water in our wake.
Then we examined the pictures. About 2,000 were damaged — a small fraction of the estimated 1.5 million images in the Post-Gazette archive that represent more than a century of Pittsburgh newspaper photojournalism.
But, oh, those damaged files. It was heartbreaking to see physical evidence of our city’s history so nearly ruined.
We tried opening a folder labeled “Bradshaw, Terry.” Images documenting the very public life of the former Steelers quarterback had fused into what can only be described as a photo brick. Bradshaw, it seemed, would be forever stuck to all three of his wives.
Dozens of images showing the construction of the Civic Arena were discolored and covered with grit. Among the carnage were pictures of Braddock, Pirates great Max Carey, the Pittsburgh Steel Co., and jazz legends Billy Strayhorn, Lena Horne and George Benson. About 75 file folders had taken a direct hit.
Each picture in the damaged files told a story — a unique Pittsburgh story. Saving them, we realized, would be a difficult and time-consuming task, and it had to begin immediately.
With the help of managing editor Susan Smith, picture editor Kurt Weber and the company’s director of operations Lisa Hurm, we quickly set up a washing station in the newspaper’s platemaking department. We soaked damaged prints, then set them onto tables to dry.
It was a tedious process. Many of the prints were fragile and required great care. But our hearts were lifted by help and support from throughout the newspaper. Editors and managers stopped in periodically to ensure adequate supplies (even a squeegee had materialized by mid-afternoon), as well as to offer advice, memories and documentation of our history-saving assembly line. Several reporters and photographers stopped by between their daily duties to help.
Twenty-eight hours after the office monsoon, we dried and refiled our final cleaned and restored picture: a group shot of a softball team from the 1983 Dapper Dan Slickest Infield Contest. We passed the image around in celebration and examined it closely.
Alas, we thought, too bad nothing can be done to salvage those ’80s hairstyles.