Rio Vista Gas Field

The future, even if it’s bright, won’t likely outshine the Rio Vista Gas Field’s epic history. For close to 70 years, more than three and a half trillion cubic feet of natural gas — billions of dollars worth — have been pulled from wells drilled deep into the hills and low-lying islands that surround the Delta town on the Sacramento River.

produced for KPIX 5 News and broadcast Aug. 23, 2011

Bay Area Man Wins 2008 U.S. Air Guitar Championship

Craig Billmeier of Alameda performing as “Hot Lixx Hulahan” won the U.S. Air Guitar Championship Friday night, Aug. 8, at the Regency Center Grand Ballroom in San Francisco.

producer, camera, editing and narration: James Irwin

SYNOPSIS: Twenty-four regional air guitar heroes jammed the stage at the Grand Ballroom of the Regency Center in San Francisco to shred for glory in the finals of the U.S. Air Guitar Championship. Among the players featured here is Craig Billmeier, of Alameda, who injured his thumb in the semifinals. Billmeier, who plays as “Hot Lixx Hulahan,” beat the other finalists with his energetic interpretation of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” a performance which featured a spectacular head-first dive into the capacity crowd. [Later in the month, after winning the U.S. Air Guitar Championship on Aug. 8, Billmeier represented the United States at the World Air Guitar Championships in Oulu, Finland, where he won first place.]

Related article: Air guitar star Hot Lixx Hulahan regains title

Survivor and Rescuers Revisit Sierra Plane Crash Site

Donnie Priest was just 10 years old when the plane his stepfather and mother were piloting slammed into the side of a Sierra mountain during a huge winter storm in 1982. Donnie, sole survivor of that crash, was barely alive when rescuers discovered the plane buried beneath the snow. Though he recovered quickly, both his legs had to be amputated. In September 2007, Donnie reunited with members of the team that saved his life for a hike to the scene of that crash.

producer, camera and editing: James Irwin. narrator: John Flinn

SYNOPSIS: A group of hikers gathers for breakfast at Tioga Pass Lodge at the edge of Yosemite National Park. They have come to hike with Donnie Priest who, in 1982, was inside a plane piloted by his stepfather when it crashed into the side of a mountain near here killing both his mother and stepfather. After days of searching, Donnie was found alive in the wreckage and now, twenty-six years later, he has invited members of the team that rescued him to hike back to the place where their lives first intersected. Donnie’s legs were amputated as a result of his ordeal and the hike up to the crash site proves too daunting for him. Several times he falls and has to reset his prosthetic limbs. Upon arriving at a plateau below the crash site, Donnie and his companions stop, rest and recall the events of Donnie’s “miracle” rescue.

Related article: Emotional Trek to Sierra Crash Site

Prisoners Guide Teens on Tour of San Quentin

Four teenage boys from Oakland got a glimpse of prison life when San Quentin inmates show them the harsh reality of daily existence inside “The Big House” in this Emmy Award-winning video report by James Irwin for the San Francisco Chronicle

producer, camera and editing: James Irwin narrator: Jason B. Johnson

SYNOPSIS: Four young men are gathered outside the entrance to San Quentin. They are part of an Oakland-based program called RISE which brings at-risk teens to meet inmates of San Quentin. Inside the gate, meet their prisoner tour guides, led by Jeff Elkins, who bluntly tells them, “I was 19 years old when I killed my friend for his drugs and his money.” They are then escorted to the main yard and, along the way, they are heckled and yelled at by prisoners. In the yard, more than a hundred orange-jumpsuit-wearing prisoners confront them, shouting and jeering in a sobering display of mass intimidation. Inside Cell Block West they are locked inside a typical 4-by-9-foot cell where the toilet is inches from the bunk bed. They also meet a security guard, William Montgomery, who describes how easy it is for experienced inmates to dominate new arrivals. Following these intense episodes, the boys describe their feelings about the things they have seen and heard.

Related article: Prison tour program tries to keep boys on right path

Two Dads, Five Sons – Forever Family

Gregory Stewart and his partner Stillman White were two gay middle-age men who wanted kids so they adopted five children of color — all boys. Follow the drama of their life at home, school and church in this Emmy-nominated video report by James Irwin for the San Francisco Chronicle.

producer, camera & editing: James Irwin narrator: Elizabeth Fernandez

SYNOPSIS: Gregory Stewart is inducted as the new pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco — its first openly-gay pastor. Attending the service are Greg’s partner, Stillman White, and their five adopted sons: Arthur, 13, Javonte, 13, Allen, 11, Dionte, 10, and David, 6. We see scenes of domestic life at home, running errands, dining at a Chinatown restaurant and visiting the zoo as Stillman and Greg talk about their belief that gay couples should consider adoption. A dramatic moment develops when Stillman learns that his two youngest children, Dionte and David, didn’t get on the correct school bus and are lost. Stillman rushes to school and confronts the administrative staff as they search for the missing boys. After a tense hour they are found aboard another bus and are reunited with Stillman at the school. Later, at home over milk and cookies with their two dads, all five boys talk about their first day of the new school year.

Related article: The Forever Family

Wounded Veterans Rebuild Lives Shattered by ‘War Without End’

In a follow-up to Chronicle writer Joan Ryan’s 4-part series on wounded veterans Brent Bretz and Michael Buyas, video journalist James Irwin visited Bretz at his home in Arizona and Buyas at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and, together with Ryan, found that both men were optimistic and determined as they struggled to overcome many physical and emotional obstacles in their long pursuit of independence and mobility. This video report won a CINE Golden Eagle award in 2006.

producer, camera & editing: James Irwin narrator: Joan Ryan

SYNOPSIS: At his home in Tempe, Arizona, 23-year-old Brent Bretz, is seen getting himself ready for an evening out on the town. Bretz shows some of his injuries, including the right leg stump that exhibits severe heterotopic ossification (rogue bone growth). Bretz shares a condo with his cousin, Jason Jones, who often drives Bretz in Bretz’ beloved black pickup truck. On this evening, the two visit Bretz’ mother, Kathy, before they head off for a night of clubbing. The scene shifts to Silver Spring, Md., where Michael Buyas is undergoing physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Buyas demonstrates how he has learned to get around on his two prosthetic limbs for extended periods out of the wheelchair. In an interview, he reflects on his feelings about his service and sacrifice in the line of duty.

Related article: War without end / The Army gave Sgts. Michael Buyas and Brent Bretz direction and self-respect. After they were wounded, they fought a second war …