Covering my first fatality

Not taken by me. Stock photo from creative commons.

“Can I come?”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When I returned to the newsroom all I really wanted was a stiff drink.

Instead I had fruit salad.

As we sat at my editor’s desk scrolling through the 100 or so photos we had taken, any chocolate, sugar or caffeine would have been appreciated.

Instead I had pineapple.

That’s what I had brought to work that evening, intended as a healthy snack. Much to my dismay I had spent all my change earlier at the vending machine on a can of coke and M&M’s — an attempt to help me stay awake during the final hours of editing.

Although my body ached, my head hurt and my mind hadn’t yet fully processed what the last few hours had encompassed, there was no chance of me falling asleep now. After telling my editor of my cravings — alcoholic and otherwise — he dashed off to his office and brought me back two Hersheys Kisses. Milk chocolate, the good kind. Unfortunately we don’t have a stiff drink here, he said.

The Kisses, his kindness and, in a way, the fruit salad were enough.

When I got home to my apartment I FaceTimed my Mum and Dad. Because no matter how much of an independent, grown woman I am, sometimes you just need your parents — even when they’re on the opposite side of the world.

It’s not that I needed to talk about what I had seen, but just that I wanted to talk. Not necessarily about seeing the body only half-covered in the middle of the street, or hearing the distraught cries of the sister arrive on the scene.

She had heard the news through Facebook.
He had been coming to visit her.
She hadn’t known he was on his way until someone told her about the accident.
That’s what we heard at least.
That’s what I told my parents.

I told them how she kept asking the police officer if it was her brother in the road. She kept asking how long his body would be left in the street for. She told the police officer she hoped the “bitch was brought to justice” — or something along those lines.

When she first arrived she turned to us and asked us what we knew. Two police officers came over to talk to her and she broke down crying less than five feet from where we were standing. As her husband consoled her, I told my editor all I wanted to do was hug her.

Although I was standing within earshot, almost within arm’s reach of her, it was hard to make out exactly what she was saying — her words were muffled by her sobs. The journalist in me wanted to prick my ears up and try to catch every word of the exchange between her and the officers.

The girl in me wanted to cover them.

The journalist in me knew that this was a photo we should get — the grieving family. The girl in me wanted to hug them, or run, or be anywhere but within five feet of the grieving family. I told my parents that was the hardest part.

As we stood there awkwardly, five feet from the officers and the family, my editor told me he was going back to the car for a second — something about grabbing a cigarette. When he returned I asked him how you get a picture of this scene.

How do you capture that moment while respecting it?

He told me that’s why he had gone back to the car. To give the family some space and to get the picture without being too intrusive. My mind kept flashing to a friend’s blog. He’s a photojournalist who works in the industry. For the life of me I wished I could remember exactly what he had said. All I remembered was that he had wanted to hug someone as well.

As I observed the events unfurl in front of me — the family arrive and then leave, the police officer directing traffic, the other officers observe, measure and photograph the scene — I kept racking my brain for the correct way to handle things.

Despite the journalism classes I had taken, it didn’t feel like something that could be taught.

As much as my head ached from the constant flashing lights of the four police cars blocking the scene, I was glad I had gone. More importantly, I was glad I hadn’t had to go alone.

I stuck by my editors side for the first hour. I asked constant questions. I made mental notes and wrote down everything I could remember when I got back to the office — my observations of the scene, what I had seen, heard, and felt. My notepad had stayed in the back pocket of my jeans while I was at the accident scene. I know it was my job to report, but it had felt too callous to pull my notepad out and start writing while everything was so fresh, so real. I wasn’t ready for that yet.

Our main purpose for heading to the scene was really to get photos. We don’t have a photo staff at our paper so photo duties fall on reporters and the editorial staff.

Slowly I began branching out on my own with the camera, leaving the comfort of my editor’s side. I walked around the edges of where they told us we were allowed to go, playing with the flash, with no flash, trying to get the crash without the body, trying to think of every angle possible.

My biggest regret is never having taken a photography course in college.

While I branched out, my editor and the only other media presence — a man from the local TV station — discussed the latest in the NFL. They discussed the protests and the anthem, the rights and the wrongs, and the ins and outs. They agreed and disagreed, and agreed to disagree. They shared stories and at times made jokes.

It felt so out of place, although I knew that’s how they have learned to cope with this kind of work. I asked my editor how often he gets called out to an accident like this. Once a month or so he said, although they’re not always a fatality.

As I spoke to my parents, I told them how the bike was embedded into the front of the truck. How the truck’s bumper was smashed, how the hood was bent up and how you could see the debrief extend back at least six feet from the rear end of the truck. That’s where the impact must have happened. The body was lying another six feet or so in front of the truck. His torso was only half covered.

When I hung up with my parents I grabbed another piece of chocolate from the pantry. Usually I treat myself to one piece when I come home from work, but that night I had three.

Although my body ached even more, my mind still hurt and I don’t think I had fully processed anything yet, I couldn’t fall asleep. It was five a.m. before I finally went to bed.

I think it was the chocolate and that pesky can of coke.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *