NBC correspondent Kerry Sanders said in a Twitter post Thursday that he suffered serious eye injuries while covering the Michael Dunn trial in Jacksonville, Fla., in February.
— Kerry Sanders (@KerryNBC) March 6, 2014
In the post that he attached to his tweet, Sanders explained that the injuries were caused by a malfunctioning HMI TV light that slowly damaged his corneas while he reported live on the Today Show, MSNBC and NBC Nightly News.
Sanders wrote in his post that the light fried the skin on his face and: “Not only could I not see, but my eyes burned in pain as if two hot coals smoldered in my sockets. The darkness lasted a frightening 36-hours. I still see foggy halos and out-of-focus views. The doctors say my eyesight will eventually return to normal.”
Networks and high-end production companies use HMI or hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lights because the lights are color balanced for outdoor use. The light they put out is about the same color as sunlight. But the lights are dangerous if used incorrectly.
Every HMI lamp should have an ultra-violet safety glass covering it. When the UV filter fails, injuries like the ones Sanders suffered can result. Usually HMI lights have a safety switch that shuts off the light globe if the UV filter lens door is broken or open. We don’t know how the filter failed in Sanders’ case. Here is a link to an HMI manufacturer’s website to give you an idea of what the lights look like and how they operate.
Most local TV stations use lower cost tungsten or LED lights and put color gels over the lights to achieve about the same color temperatures as the HMI lights.
Sanders suffers increasing pain
Sanders explains the slow painful onset of his problems that started around 8 p.m. By 2 a.m, he said he was in agony.
“My eyes had swollen shut and I could no longer tough out the escalating pain. I called for a cab. It was 25-minutes away, maybe longer. Desperate, and perhaps with a mind muddled by pain, I grabbed the keys to the rental car. With my finger and thumb I pried open one of my now puffed-shut eyes, I aimed the car to the nearest hospital. Why I didn’t call 911 for ambulance is something I still can’t explain.”
Sanders said when he got to the hospital, doctors told him his corneas were “fried.”
“The anesthetic eye-drops to ease the pain lasted only about 15 minutes and then the agony returned. The biggest problem: those powerful drops could cause permanent injury so I would get only four per eye and no more.”
By morning, Sanders said, he was blind.
As his doctors predicted, his eyesight is returning, slowly. He says he is about 80 percent healed now.
While he has been recovering, he and his siblings made a long planned trip to the Andes to release his mother’s ashes in Peru, where she grew up.
“We stuck to our plan and made our way south. My sister was sort of my seeing eye-dog, and my brother played the pack mule, carrying my luggage.
“More than 7,000 feet up, along the Inca Trail, we found the perfect spot to release her ashes. While there may be a detail or two I couldn’t make out, I could see the stunning beauty my mother always talked about when she would remember her childhood.”
Sanders said the first thing he will look for when he gets back to work at NBC is “those damn HMI lights, in the off position of course. Right now I’m not sure what to look for, but you can be sure I’m going to find out. And if being around camera lights is anywhere in your job description, you should too.”
Other on-air journalists responded to Sander’s tweet saying they too had been injured in HMI accidents.
— john vause (@vausecnn) March 6, 2014
— Lorenzo Milá Mencos (@lorenzomila) March 6, 2014
— Dawna Friesen (@DFriesenGlobal) March 6, 2014
— JOHN GIANNONE (@jaygeemsg) March 6, 2014
I asked experienced photojournalist friends how common HMI injuries are. Here are some of the responses I got:
Richard Adkins: WRAL TV
“HMI lights, as with any piece of equipment, if used improperly, set up incorrectly, or poorly maintained, can be dangerous. I know I’m a geek, but I read instruction manuals, and I would encourage everyone to do so. But it all boils down to maintaining the gear, checking the set up, and taking the time to make sure everything is okay.”
Bethany Swain: University of Maryland lecturer, former CNN photojournalist
“I know two CNN reporters who had this happen, both after long days doing live shots outside. But only heard of two in all of my years and all of the thousands of days using them. Neither were with lights I set up, thank goodness.”
“I remember liking to have one of our lighting experts check my lights sometimes so I had another person to double check. The check takes a few seconds. “
Sanders’ injury is a wake-up call not just to photojournalists but to reporters and anchors who stand in front of TV lights. TV stations should use this story as a reminder that TV gear should be used by professionals and professionals need training.