Way-back Wednesday: Reporting rough

My students today often have an idealized vision of what reporting is like, imagining it to be glamorous and filled with celebrities and lunches. To bring their feet to Earth, I share some of my coverage and tell them the story behind it. What you’re about to read was written after a major airline crash. My editor ran it the next day as an explanation of what it’s like to cover a disaster, a type of reporting that few freelancers ever encounter or seek. A lot of people think that reporters are heartless. I hope this convinces you otherwise.

The grassy hillside holds a plain stone memorial, but passengers flying overhead see no other trace of one of the worst air disasters in U.S. history.

Yet the scars surely remain, because every new crash renews the pain — even for a reporter.

My memory has buried the details of the assignments, but I vividly recall with slight shame what it was like to cover the crash — shame, because I cried. And I wasn’t the only veteran reporter who did. The crash happened on a stormy August evening at the edge of Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich. A Northwest Airlines MD-82, bound for Phoenix, tipped sideways after lifting off a northeast runway, clipping street lights and trees and sliding to rest in a fireball at a freeway underpass.

The next day, I reported from the scene as rescue workers counted 156 dead. The sole survivor, a 4-year-old girl, supposedly had been found shielded from the inferno by her mother’s body.

When the crash occurred, I had been in Memphis, Tenn., where my newspaper, The Arizona Republic, had assigned me to cover the 10th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. With the last story filed, I had hunted up a Mexican dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Mississippi, then had settled into my room to watch “Blue Hawaii” on television.

About 9 p.m., a news bulletin about the crash interrupted the movie. I thought first of how horrifying the scene must be. Detroit was my hometown, and my dad had taken us as kids to the airport nearly every summer Sunday to watch airplanes take off and land.

Then I thought about whom I might know on the plane. My stomach churned. The phone rang. An editor told me to get to Detroit any way I could to cover the crash. Two other reporters and a photographer would fly there More

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