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 the next morning from Phoenix.

Reporters are supposed to be hard-boiled. We spend our careers covering other people’s tragedies, one or a few at a time — murders, fires, wrecks, floods, deaths. We step briefly into the victims’ lives, then return to our own.

At the office in Phoenix, the reporters did exactly that, sketching in words the personalities who had become statistics, asking friends and relatives how they would like the deceased to be remembered.

Wouldn’t they gladly trade places with me, covering the biggest disaster they might ever cover?

They didn’t know how lucky they were to be home, because the magnitude of the tragedy on site was crushing.

I remember asking my editor to please check the list of victims for names of my friends.

I saw reporters turn docilely away rather than confront an elderly couple who had come to identify a loved one and were propping each other up in tears in a hotel parking lot.

I saw reporters obeying police officers who kept them away from a morgue set up in a hangar.

They turned, too, from a banquet hall in a hotel where disaster officials played videotapes of jewelry, clothing, toys and other objects found at the scene, hoping relatives of passengers could identify them, confirming the deaths of people who were too shredded or seared to be identified another way.

And I saw conflicted reporters try to finagle tours of the site, which had been cordoned off by police — wanting to go out of obligation, not wanting to go because of dread.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates air crashes, held daily press conferences to give us the latest details.

Only one press conference stands out in my memory, and the NTSB wasn’t there. It was held at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, where little Cecelia Chihan lay swathed in burn bandages. Her family, ending a vacation in Pennsylvania, had changed planes in Detroit to go home to Arizona.

The press conference was held in a theater, the kind in which doctors give lectures. Reporters stood shoulder-to-shoulder all the way to the last row.

Behind a table hidden by microphones, Cecelia’s grandfather told how he had identified the broken little girl by the lavender nail polish her grandma had applied as the family got ready to go home.

The reporter standing next to me sniffled. He was from a big Eastern newspaper. I looked up and saw nearly every reporter wiping away tears.

Meanwhile, the two other reporters from Phoenix got their wish: They toured the crash site. Both of them said that seeing fragments of plane and suitcases and smelling charred earth gave them nightmares for weeks.

As I went home from my assignment, I noted that people getting on my plane paused extra long at the diagram showing the emergency exits, as if exiting would have saved the dead.

At the office, reporters excitedly buttonholed me to ask what it had been like in Detroit. I told them straight: It was horrible beyond imagination, beyond anything I could describe in print.

Several weeks after the crash, a memorial service was held at Phoenix Civic Plaza. We four who had been in Detroit made a quiet rendezvous there to unburden ourselves of wrenching, profound grief for 156 strangers.

[Note: Every once in a while, CNN airs a program, “Sole Survivor,” about plane crash survivors. The little girl from this crash is in it, now a grown woman. She has the silhouette of an MD-82 tattooed on her wrist in memory of her mom, dad and brother.]

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