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Libyan earthquake 1963

I set the scene for what I am about to describe.   In the late morning of February 21st, 1963, a story came over the United Press wire.  It stated that a sizeable earthquake had occurred in Libya, the location was El Marje, Barce in the north of Cyrenaica.  The nearest large town was Benghazi.

Of course, UPMT wanted the story covered.  We had a crew based at our office at the Carlton Cinema in Haymarket.  I phoned them and asked them to get ready to travel I asked them to go to the Libyan Embassy to get a visa.  I then checked on flights into Benghazi and found that there was one early afternoon.

The Carlton crew phoned to say that the Libyan embassy visa section was closed and would not be open till after lunch.  This was too late for us.

In the office at the time was Ian Grant waiting around for a job.  I thought to myself “Sod the visa” and I booked him on to the Benghazi flight and as soon as he had sorted out his equipment and rawstock he was taken off to Heathrow.  His driver confirmed to me that he had got on the flight.  I had phoned ahead to book his ticket which he was able to pick up at the check-in desk.  I arranged for our shipping agents, Shand Air Cargo, to meet him and cover any excess baggage charges, both ways.

Ian was a capable, resourceful, cameraman who had come to us from Independent Television News and had operated as a cameraman for the Army Film Unit during the Second World War.  Sgt Ian James Grant was at the Normandy landings, then accompanied the 11th Armoured Division throughout its advance into North West Europe and was the first cine cameraman to film the liberation of Belsen. He was awarded the Military Medal.

Damage from El Marj (Barce, Libya) earthquake ...

Damage from El Marj (Barce, Libya) earthquake

What followed was told to me by Ian Grant. He arrived in Benghazi as it was getting dark, he changed currencies at the airport, and then he hired a taxi to take him to the earthquake scene at Barce.  He shot some material in the dark, scenes which were lit by lights of the rescue teams.  Next morning he carried on shooting.  The scenes were horrific and over 300 people lost their lives in the ‘quake.

Ian did a first class job in covering the story. The extent of the damage was widespread and he captured the chaotic scene perfectly.

When Ian had almost finished his work, he was approached by a Libyan police officer who asked him what he was doing there. He must have stood out like a sore thumb.  Ian said he was filming for British Movietonews.  The policeman asked to see his visa.  Ian said “I did not have time to get one”.  The policeman said “You must be deported – immediately”, whereupon he called up a police car to escort Ian back to Benghazi airport where he was put on the first London flight out.

If the policeman had not intervened, it is unlikely that Ian Grant would have got out of Libya until the following day. Shortly after lunch on February 22nd, Ian walked into the office with his rushes.

It was a famous victory in which Movietone got an exclusive, UPMT beat their opposition hands down and we supplied the story to a grateful BBC.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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