Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Bad Day

I knew it was going to be a bad day from the second I set foot in the WNEP newsroom yesterday morning.  Usually, our morning broadcast producer, Thomas, gives me a chance to put down my brief case, take off my coat and sit down before we discuss the day's possibilities.  He pounced on me the second I came into view around the corner.

Yesterday, there was only one story.  When I arrived yesterday at 2:30 AM, one of our photographers was on his way back from Pottsville.  At the time, we knew there was a very bad fire on Pierce Street. There were six people unaccounted for and feared dead.  Four of those were children.

Photographer Corey and I quickly loaded up one of our satellite trucks and headed south.  Photographer Dave and Ryan Leckey got in a news car and also went to Pottsville a few minutes later.  Corey and I arrived just before 4:30 AM.  As he set up the truck and positioned the satellite dish, I set out in search of information.

A lot of fire departments and coroner's offices can learn a few things from the people in Pottsville and Schuylkill County.  It was solid crisis management.  They confirmed what they could.  It was enough information for us to get on the air and leave them alone for a while.  They offered what additional information they had throughout the morning.  There were regular updates, mini news conferences.  We got our information, and it saved the official types from constant and repeated pestering.

WNEP broadcast live updates twice a half hour from 4:30 AM all the way until Good Morning America ended at 9:00 AM.  We even found a few minutes to deliver a live report to our sister station in Huntsville, AL.  Ryan and I had a system that worked rather well.  I'd handle the official part of the story.  He would do the neighborhood reaction.  We took different elements of the story and combined them to make sense, without encroaching on the other's territory.

Still others back at the office updated WNEP.com, Twitter, and made sure the video got on the air and on-line.  Tom and Mindi easily and calmly adapted to several last minute changes back at the anchor desk.

Several people e-mailed and Tweeted positive comments.  Thank you.  We did what we could.

Some asked what it's like covering such a tragedy.  I don't know if other journalists are the same, but when I'm out on something like this, a different mode kicks in.  Yes, I'm trying to be as humane and sensitive as possible, but I'm also thinking about logistics, technical issues, content for the next update, how I'm going to construct my noon story, what the later follow up crews need to know...

The horror always sinks in when I'm on my way home in the car, and moments like this-- when I'm in front of my computer keyboard and monitor, in the quiet of my home work space.

I guess being in the work overdrive mode, at the scene, is a defense mechanism.  It keeps you from breaking down and crying, and believe me, it's not hard to cry at stories like this.

There are other ways of coping.  Mass media events are opportunities to see people from other stations, both locally, and Philadelphia and Harrisburg.  I've competed against, and worked with most over the years.  It's nice to see old friends, and you really appreciate familiar faces on a bad day.  Plus, you make new friends and ask about old ones who work other shifts or who are back at the office.

You try not to complain, because you know there are those who have it a lot worse-- the families of the victims, their friends, the neighbors, the first responders...

As an aside, let me tell you a little bit about Pottsville...  It's a pretty city, but it can be a television logistical nightmare.  It's hilly.  The streets are narrow.  Many are one way.  There are wires all over the place.  Add closed streets because of fire trucks and hoses, and you have a really difficult situation.  Making our way to the fire scene was line maneuvering through a maze.  Plus, the satellite truck finds its target easier when it's parked on a flat surface.  Flat was at a premium.  We found a small parking tray off Pierce street, and to the person whose space we stole, a belated thank you.

Thanks for reading this glimpse into a day in the life.  Check the smoke alarms, keep an eye on the kids, and be thankful for what you have.