Logistical nightmares in New York City

On Friday, I waited nearly five hours to hear the pope speak at the United Nations. On Saturday, I waited six hours for a press bus – which I wouldn’t have minded so much, except I never got where I was going.

Maybe it’s the traffic, or maybe it’s the scale and density of the city, but logistical operations on the New York leg of Pope Benedict’s trip seemed to break down.

The problems started as soon as the pope arrived Friday. Rome bureau chief John Thavis rode a press helicopter from JFK to Manhattan, where a bus was to speed him and other journalists uptown. But they were dropped off about seven blocks from U.N. headquarters and ended up missing the pope’s arrival and initial meet-and-greets. Some of the other Vatican press corps members coming by bus from the airport fared even worse: They missed the pope’s entire address.

People arrived at the press center at 6:45 Saturday morning to get in line for an 8:30 bus to a venue just outside the city. That first bus encountered almost comical problems along the way, finally arriving at its destination 15 miles from the departure point a bit before 11 a.m. And then it sat outside the seminary for reasons unclear. (For more details of that long and winding road, see colleague Beth Griffin’s post.)

Those of us relegated to the second fleet of buses went through our security “sweep” two hours late. As we sat in a holding room, quarantined from the huddled masses of the unsecure and unswept, organizers began calling us for boarding according to the position area we’d been assigned to at the venue. Mine was the last one, group six. Didn’t someone famous once say the last shall be first? I’m still waiting to jump to the head of the line.

Group six got left behind. We found another bus soon enough, but much like at Kennedy airport, the simple act of boarding doesn’t always mean you’re actually going anywhere. All the Secret Service escorts were booked, which meant we were stuck on the bus for at least an hour and 45 minutes, when we’d be able to join the Vatican press corps and their designated escort. And just like at the airport, we couldn’t de-bus.

As the hours ticked by, I began to wonder if my destination was such a great idea anyway. I received periodic reports from Beth on her epic quest to locate the media center, which turned out to be useless. Then she found something called the filing center, which resembled a media center.

Difficulties continued hours after she’d secured an Internet connection. Imagine trying to leave a venue where 25,000 young people have converged. When I covered World Youth Day 2000 in Rome, bureau chief John Thavis made the following prediction of the press bus that would depart the muddy fields where 2 million teenagers had gathered for 24 hours: “It’ll be like the last helicopter out of Saigon.”

CNS photographer Bob Roller’s bus to the youth rally was delayed four hours because of the fiasco with the first bus, and when the bus finally arrived at the seminary, it dropped him and three photographers more than a mile from their designated spot. After the youth rally, Roller endured another forced march with 75 pounds of equipment a mile and a half uphill to get to the point where he’d been dropped off. Only when he got there, he discovered he was in the wrong spot for the return bus. Back down the hill.

John Feister of St. Anthony Messenger beat the rest of the press back home by forgoing the bus entirely – he hitched a ride with a Yonkers priest to a train station.

After my trip to nowhere, I had no desire to repeat the experience this morning at Yankee Stadium. As at other venues, getting there appeared to be only half the battle. As of 12:30 pm, no one (including the press handlers) knew what the wi-fi password was, and reporters were going old-school, calling in their stories.

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