First a Christian, then a compassionate reporter

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By David Whisenant
For the Salisbury Post
I almost didn’t go. I was at my usual Friday morning prayer breakfast at the Checkered Flag. Three friends and I meet every week. We enjoy each other’s company, and we pray out loud together for specific needs. Someone called to tell me Salisbury Millworks was on fire, probably not a big deal, and the Salisbury Fire Department was already on the scene. That usually means the fire is out before I get there.
But something told me to go. I can’t describe it, but I apologized to my friends and left.
I got to the fire in a couple of minutes. At first, an employee wouldn’t let me in. That’s OK. I ended up in a better position at the front of the plant, instead of the back side off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
I was the first reporter on the scene, and I started rolling video. Initially, from the eye of a news photographer, it wasn’t an astounding sight ó smoke coming out of some windows in what appeared to be a small office building.
I exchanged “good mornings” with police officers Andy Efird and Andy Carlton. I nodded at some of the firefighters. I called the WBTV assignment desk and told them I was covering a fire, probably not a big deal. I’d stay a few more minutes and run to the bureau on the Square and feed them some video for noon.
At some point, and I can’t really put my finger on the time, something changed. I remember the police had allowed me to cross the railroad tracks and get some closer images. Suddenly, smoke coming from building was heavier, darker in color. I remember seeing a bright orange glow in the window that I believe was owner Norde Wilson’s office. I interviewed Wilson a few minutes later, and he was still confident the fire would be extinguished quickly. He praised the Salisbury Fire Department and regretted, at that point, probably losing some fine cherry woodwork in his office.
Then another significant change. Flames laced the smoke coming from the roof of the office, flames mixed with smoke now poured from Wilson’s office window. There was more smoke, and it was coming from eaves and doorways, garage doors and windows. Now it was coming from the huge manufacturing area that ran nearly a block long.
Soon the flames overpowered the smoke ó bright, orange, fierce, crawling on every surface, fueled by superheated air. Now the flames leapt into the air over the brick building.
Then another change, a haunting one. No one told me firefighters were hurt. I didn’t hear the “Mayday!” call from Capt. Barkley, but I could see it on the faces. I knew something horrible had happened. Chief Parnell walked by with a look of shock and sadness. I called the station back and said they better send me some help because I knew this was not just a structure fire like I’d seen hundreds of times in my career.
I saw the ambulance move in surprisingly close to the flames. Chief Parnell walked by and asked me and the other news crews if we would hold off reporting anything until families could be notified.
For a story two years ago, Chief Parnell dressed me up in firefighter gear, and let me go into a building the department was burning for training. I can still feel the heat. As I crawled on the floor, I wondered how firefighters could do this and keep their senses.
At one point, probably just a minute or two into the drill, firefighters started to pull me out. I wasn’t ready to go, but I saw a part of plastic on the cover of my camera start melting. I didn’t need more convincing.
But this early morning fire was no training drill. This was a raging inferno that had claimed lives. What I noticed next spoke volumes about the character of these men and women. They didn’t stop fighting this fire. One or two took seconds to hug, but then they charged back in. They had to put their grief and pain aside while the fire continued to wrap its fingers around the building.
I also had a job to do. The station sent some help, and I spent the rest of the day on the scene of the fire. I had to give three live reports in our noon news, plus one at 5, one at 6, one at 7 and an additional story for WFMY in Greensboro and WRAL in Raleigh. My video, those unbelieveable images, went out to CBS News in New York and to CBS and affiliated stations across the world.
I cried at the end of my 5 p.m. live shot. I couldn’t help it. This is my hometown. These are people I know and respect, and they’re hurting. So I’m hurting. It may not have been professional, but it was real. I said something to the effect that in my 16 years of covering news on television, this was the worst ó no question ó the worst story I had ever covered.
I’ve seen a lot of bad things ó suffering, anger ó but this was the nadir. That led me to do some things out of character for me. I snapped at several people in our newsroom, including anchor Maureen O’Boyle. I snapped at good people at Rowan Regional Medical Center. I snapped at my wife. I knew I had to get my emotions under control. I asked God to give me peace. Then I felt guilty asking for anything when others needed so much more.
The next few days were truly a blur of images, some sad and heartbreaking, some hopeful and wonderful. The community showed its support, offering banners, ribbons, signs and prayers for the families of the fallen firefighters and those still on the job.
As a reporter, I was glad to have positive things to say about the horror I had seen that Friday, but there were difficult, awkward moments. As always, some members of the media didn’t want to respect what I felt were reasonable rules for covering the aftermath of such tragedies. I did stories about how out-of-town firefighters were covering for Salisbury and Rowan County units, and I talked to Brad Jordan, a firefighter who was there Friday. Jordan had seen death 12 years earlier when he was riding with firefighter Jim Shue of the Locke Fire Department and an accident in the fire truck took Shue’s life. Yet here was Jordan, married to a firefighter, and ready to run on the next call.
The day of the funeral was another milestone. For days there was behind-the-scene drama about how the media would be allowed to cover the event. I wanted to have my camera there and I was willing to “pool” the video. That’s a media term that means everybody gets the same thing I get. I thought this was a historic event that should be documented, but I also felt the two families dealing with immense grief should have the final say. The family did approve the request, but again, the media drama lasted right up to the morning of the service. We in the media usually play nice together, but at times, one outlet or another pushes the bounds of reason and sensitivity. In the end it worked out, and the television camera in the chapel made it possible for the overflow crowd in Keppel Auditorium to see and hear the emotional service.
Outside the chapel, there was a little more media drama and even some light comedy. The media area was down Oliver’s Way, a beautiful walkway that runs from the chapel to the auditorium. Problem is, the other cameras and crews were behind a small weeping willow tree. Deputy Chief Steve Whitley had agreed to that position, and he was serious about enforcing the rules. So serious he called the magistrate and a judge Thursday morning to say he might have to bring in reporters who crossed the line.
We joked about the tree falling prey to an unknown beaver, but to our amazement, Catawba officials simply dug it up and moved it.
Even the news helicopters ó Sky 3, Chopper 9 and Air Star ó backed off when Salisbury Police Lt. Rory Collins noticed their “wop wop wop.”
I think I wrote this as therapy for myself. I wanted to remember these images and the feelings I experienced during this mournful time. I prayed hard this week, for the Islers and the Monroes; for Chief Parnell, Capt. Barkley and city public information officer Karen Wilkinson, who, as a cousin of Justin Monroe, was suffering in her own way. I also prayed for myself and I asked others to pray for me. I wanted to conduct myself first as a Christian and second as a compassionate reporter who still had a job to do.
One speaker at the funeral said God can bring good out of tragedy. I certainly witnessed that ó the tragic that we leave behind and the good that drives us to hope through the grace of God.