Hot Shots

updated 09/12/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/12/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

BOB TUR AND MARIKA GERRARD-TUR are shuffling papers in their office-cum-hangar at Santa Monica Airport, when one of their scanners squawks word of a serious fire in South Central Los Angeles, nine miles away. "We're going after this one!" Bob shouts, dashing 100 yards to the couple's $1.1 million helicopter. In minutes, Tur, 34, and his pilot, Lawrence Welk III (grandson of the bubblemeister), 24, are orbiting a plume of black smoke over Vermont Avenue, while on the ground Marika, 39, stays in radio contact.

"We're here first, we're here first!" cries Tur, who has won two local Emmys. "We're always first!" He slides back the chopper's door and, to the sound of thwacking overhead blades, hoists a 35-pound video camera to his shoulder and trains it on the inferno. Then he delivers, first to TV and then to radio audiences, a live report of the blaze. "It's not enough to beat the competition," he exults later. "You've got to make them miserable."

Founders, owners and stars of Los Angeles News Service (LANS), the Turs are the premier team in helicopter reporting, a journalistic genre particularly important in sprawling, traffic-choked L.A. When O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings took their slow, strange freeway spin in the white Bronco, an airborne Bob Tur was the first journalist to spot the pair and break the news to a mesmerized nation. When rioting broke out in April 1992 after the acquittal of the police officers charged with beating Rodney King, it was Marika's camera work—with Bob reporting—that captured live the savage attack on trucker Reginald Denny. In 1985, Bob took the plum aerial shots at the Madonna-Sean Penn wedding in Malibu. ("I made $100,000 in the first hour from the still-photo sales," he says.)

The Turs owe much of their success and seven-figure income (they have contracts with KCBS-TV and KNX radio and sell stock video to other broadcasters) to intuition. When Simpson took his tour of the freeways, they put themselves, as Marika says, "in the head" of the ex-football star. After O.J.'s friend Robert Kardashian read an anguished letter from the fugitive on national TY the Turs perceived it as a public suicide note. "So we thought this [suicide] would be very public," Marika says. "Then we thought: cemetery, Nicole, ex-wife." They found O.J., with the police close behind him, on the San Diego Freeway not far from Nicole Brown Simpson's grave site.

Above all, perhaps, the Tur magic derives from an alchemy of opposites. Bob is high-strung and impetuous. Marika is cool and logical, a lapsed UCLA Ph.D. student in art and philosophy. "I'll bounce my ideas off her and get a reasoned response," Bob says, adding puckishly, "then I can ignore it and do whatever I want."

When they met in 1978, Bob was an 18-year-old college dropout employed as a part-time wire service reporter and photographer; Marika, then 23, was working at a Westwood movie house—where Bob visited her daily for three months until she finally agreed to a Halloween date. Since then, they've spent just two weeks apart, though they didn't marry until 1983, when Marika was pregnant with daughter Katy, now 10. They also have a son, Jamie, 8.

In 1979 the Turs founded LANS and did freelance reporting and photography for magazines and newspapers. By 1985 they had branched into television and bought their first chopper. In time their kids began going along for the ride. "When they heard sirens," Marika recalls, "instead of saying, 'There's an ambulance!' they'd say, 'There's a story!' "

In 1988, Bob became locally famous when he plucked 54 people from the storm-lashed Pacific—making 13 trips in an hour—after part of the Portofino Inn at Redondo Beach collapsed. The Turs relish such derring-do. So far they have rescued 66 people, found seven lost planes and, just last year, roused from his camper a vacationing transplant candidate with this message, bellowed from above by loudspeaker: "Charles Ridge way, we have your kidney!"

Heroics notwithstanding, the tenacious Turs rankle some colleagues. "We get better pictures than they do, so they figure we're doing something wrong," scoffs Marika. Bob, especially, is criticized as recklessly aggressive, and last year L.A. entertainment reporter Sam Rubin said on KTLA-TV that he was "the most dangerous pilot in the air and on the air." In 1991 the FAA revoked Tur's pilot's license for five years for reckless flying—citing in part a fire department charge that Tur had flown too close over a pier fire. Tur, who for now rides with other pilots, denies the allegations. Last week he won a lawsuit against the fire department and the city of L.A.; a suit against Rubin and KTLA is pending.

There are also more intimate pressures, since the Turs are like any other married couple crammed into a helicopter. "We could be moving 150 miles an hour, 1,000 feet over the city, and we're arguing about the kids," Bob says.

"And then this news story happens," adds Marika, "and we're quiet, working with precision and ease." She glances toward her husband. "Then as soon as it's over, we're back arguing."

RICHARD JEROME
STANLEY YOUNG in Los Angeles

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