Friday, December 21, 2012

We Few, We Band of Brothers

           Sitting and looking out the window at the Thomas A. Edison rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike, I suddenly realized I was crying.
            I wasn’t just choked up like before. Pulling my baseball cap low over my eyes, I slid a hand up beside my face and unsuccessfully tried to finish my Coke.
I was quiet and no one seemed to notice. If they did, they were polite enough not to stare.
            A few hours earlier, I’d left the Shakespeare Room, a small conference room in a hotel near Newtown, Conn. where a satellite newsroom had been set up for coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting.

            I was finally going home.
            But at the tiny table with my Burger King lunch somewhere in North Jersey, I came apart because I was now completely alone.
            I started working the long days of covering Newtown Saturday after arriving in Connecticut Friday night.
Thursday morning, after five full days of reporting, I was scheduled to finally rotate out and head home, unable to leave The Mercury short-staffed any longer.
            While covering relentlessly horrific and difficult things, I felt like I’d formed a sort of camaraderie with those covering Newtown with me. One person described it as a “brothers in arms” kind of deal.
            We didn’t, and maybe don’t, know each other very well, but those that were there for an extended stay sort of grew together.
            I was uncomfortable and harried every day, constantly nervous and pressing, but at least I had everyone around me through most of it that experienced the same thing. When the day’s work finally wrapped, we all could at least sit together in the hotel bar or lobby and talk through it all.
            Part of the coverage was the funerals. After the first days of trying to get victim profiles through anyone willing to talk (and there weren’t many), the worst jobs were covering funerals. No one wanted to go.
            In my first and only experience, something very difficult happened. I don’t know if I’ll ever really talk about what happened, but I was able to get through it.
            When my editors found out what happened, I was quietly pulled off of doing funerals because there was concern for my “psyche.”
            A few days later, I found out that one of the others I’d worked with was pulling a second or third funeral assignment. I basically begged my assignment editor to put me on instead.
            I’m fairly confident most of the people I was with would have done the same for me.
            We may have all been shell shocked, but we were all trying to look out for each other.
            We shared our grief, respectfully quieted when someone broke down, or listened calmly when someone lashed out at the stress that not only comes with covering such a tragedy but just being in the newspaper business.
            The company always afforded us with opportunities to bow out, to talk with a professional, but it didn’t seem like anyone wanted to miss an assignment and add to another’s workload. Everyone always volunteered to do more.
            Talking with one of the young reporters I’d worked with from the beginning in the  Shakespeare Room late Wednesday night, we discussed what might happen to us after being exposed to this type of coverage, nonstop, for so long.
            We quietly wondered if this is the type of thing that could give you post-traumatic stress disorder. We thought aloud about how we would describe what we did in Newtown to our family and friends. We whispered with uncertainty, “We’re going to be okay.”
            What mattered most was that we were able to be scared together.
            Because of the nature of the situation, I was never happy in Connecticut. But I did feel comfortable in a few moments.
The instance that stands out was after we’d all filed our stories one night after the hectic, soul-shaking first days.
            Around the table in Shakespeare, the usual crew gathered and ate our dinners from the hotel kitchen and waited for the conference call that would decide our assignments for the next day.
            Music was played from a laptop. Someone sang. We listened to catchy but not great pop music and joked about the assignment editor’s affinity for boy bands.
            Leaning in my chair and having the same French fries I’d already had twelve times before, I felt totally comfortable for the first time since I’d gotten to Connecticut.
Sitting in the rest stop Thursday afternoon, I suddenly didn’t have that support group of people who were there, subjected to the same things and feeling the way I did.
            In the rest stop, I could hear people behind me laughing and talking, many of them obviously taking off early to their Christmas destinations. Children laughed and played with the cardboard Burger King crowns and an older woman discussed menu options with a slightly younger woman.
            At the same time, faintly, I could hear a TV somewhere above with the news on, playing more Newtown coverage. I didn’t dare look up.
No one there knew how it had been in Newtown. No one where I was going at home would know it either.
            I thought of the funerals and knocking on doors and the terse phone calls.
            And that’s about when I realized that tears were streaming down my face.
            I’m glad I went to Newtown. The people at the New Haven Register needed help and I hope someone would come to help me if a news event of this magnitude happened near The Mercury.
            I’m glad I covered it because I did my best to be as respectful as possible to the town and the victims, like the rest of the people I worked with, and unlike some of the news agencies I witnessed. I’m still heartbroken for the people there and I hope things start winding down very soon.
            Like everything associated with Newtown and Sandy Hook, it’s definitely going to take some time for me to get right again. I already miss the group of mostly young and all incredibly talented reporters and editors I worked with.
            I don’t feel sorry for myself for a second.
But I’m nervous for those that are still up there.
            As much as I’ve grown to care for Newtown and its people, I grew to care about the people in the Shakespeare Room.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Break

Today, I finally reached a point I had hoped I might escape.

I'm still working the story on the shooting in Newtown, Conn. I just concluded my fourth full day of work, my fifth in the state.

These full days have been running, at the least, twelve hours, sometimes fifteen hours or more, while immersed in the story of what horrific things unfolded last Friday.

Each day, I've had something different to cover, none much easier than the other in terms of difficulty, in terms of skill or emotion.

Since I've had so many different tasks, I've kept my editor at home informed of what's been going on with the coverage, what I've been slated for, just to let her know what The Mercury might want to use for their own coverage of the event.

I'd kept myself together throughout this. Some hadn't. I've heard of a few people losing it a little. Some are amazed they're still okay. The mix of intense work and the intense sadness here is a formula for a breakdown.

At one point yesterday or the day before (time has ceased to exist here), me and the crew of remarkably talented and dedicated journalists in our satellite newsroom discussed when this all became "real" for them.

Some said it was hearing the reports of how many were killed. Others talked about driving into the town and seeing the makeshift memorials.

Mine came Saturday. When the authorities announced, officially, the list of names of those killed, I was sent to the park where the press briefing was held to retrieve a physical copy of the list.

I grabbed it and began driving back to our satellite newsroom with it. At a stoplight, I picked the list up and glanced down at the names on it.

The list included birth dates and I began noticing how many names had "2005" or "2006" in the DOB column. My hand suddenly felt numb and the list slipped from my fingers into the wheel well of the passenger side of my car.

The difficulty of witnessing some things and talking to some people is something I'll probably never encounter again. But I've kept it together.

This morning, as I was filling in my editor on the day's "budget" of stories, she told me about a story involving one victim that was local to our coverage area. She mentioned the child's name.

I replied that I remembered the name, began to say that I thought I'd been assigned the student at one point, then realized it wasn't one of the six or so I'd been assigned to do over the first few days.

I thought I remembered another person doing the profile.

"He did that person," I said. "I think he did. I think, but I'm not sure because there..."

Suddenly, it felt like all the breath had been sucked from my lungs and I physically couldn't speak.

I was going to say, "I'm not sure because there were so many." And in that moment, just hearing my mind say it and trying to speak those words, I suddenly felt paralyzed by grief.

I'd been afraid of reaching the breaking point for days. We've been immersed in such terrible sorrow day in and out that it was always a threat and, suddenly, on the phone with my home paper's editor, I was completely ambushed.

She thought she'd been cut off from my line, or that I'd broken up.

"I said we just each worked a lot," I finished lamely.

There is a lot of backlash to us being in Newtown right now. I can't put myself in the shoes of the people here, but from what I've gathered from the criticisms and anger vocalized at us, many think we're just trying to capitalize on a sensational news story, that each painful interview is just a feather in our cap.

But from what I've witnessed from others with me who have worked so hard and from what I felt myself this morning when I finally ran into a wall, we're here because we feel telling what happened is indescribably important. In the same breath, I can say we all are affected very deeply by this, we care very much for those it touched, and we truly wish that this all never happened.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Our Hearts Are Broken

For those of you that don't know, I'm currently up in Connecticut covering the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Friday, I'd been following the news from the Pottstown Mercury's newsroom relatively closely.

I went out for lunch, came back, and was told my company was looking for volunteers to help out our sister paper in New Haven, the Register. I considered it for a few second,s then agreed to go because I knew I'd regret it if I didn't.

After running home, grabbing clothes for three days with no idea how long I'd really be there, I drove five hours and got to New Haven after 10 p.m.

For the entirety of Saturday and Sunday, I've been working non-stop, catching 5 hours of sleep at most, trying to catch up with victims' stories, running on tasks to help create articles, gathering data and contacts and whatever I can.

It's been difficult. It's been gut-wrenching at times, forcing yourself to call and look for someone that might share a story about the worst thing they've ever experienced.

This hasn't been fun, by any means. It hasn't been an adventure for me.

There have been times when I've been faced with a task that I've been almost terrified to take. But each time, doing it, I told myself, "Tomorrow, you'll have already done this. Get it done and it will be over tomorrow."

But what is really terrifying, what I almost cannot handle, is that there are people in the town I've been through a few times that can't tell themselves that, that, tomorrow, things will be exactly as they were today, they'll never be "done."