Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

December 20, 2012

Connecticut massacre brings back sad memories of Va. Tech, Appalachian School of Law

We usually keep the newsroom’s television on during the day so we will know what’s happening in the world. Sometimes news outside our region impacts us, so we want to be ready. I watch it with maybe a quarter of my attention if I’m not too busy, and it becomes only background if I’m very busy. My attention grew last Friday when I saw that there had been a school shooting in Connecticut. Then the numbers started climbing and I thought of Virginia Tech back in 2007.

The shootings in Newtown, Conn. kept getting worse and worse as the information arrived and flowed along the television screen. I couldn’t help thinking of the reporters converging on the scene and dealing with what I’ve dubbed an “on the run situation.” The authorities can’t tell you what’s happening because they don’t know the facts themselves. They’re still trying to piece together the events. It’s very frustrating, but sometimes you have to be patient, allow the news to unfold, and be ready to move when you get the facts.

I can imagine those reporters arriving in Newtown and trying to find out how they could get information. When photographer Eric DiNovo and myself arrived at the Virginia Tech campus years ago, I had no idea where to go. I watched S.W.A.T. officers leaving Norris Hall, the place where most of the shooting victims died, and realized how serious the story was going to be. I found a campus officer who pointed me out to the student union. Rather than go back to the car and try finding a parking space that didn’t exist anymore, I started hiking and asking directions. The Blacksburg campus is huge and doesn’t lend itself to wandering around.

When I arrived at the student union, the place was already full of reporters and technicians. A press conference — the first since the shootings — was being organized and I signed up for it. Reporter Katie Couric arrived and I ended up three rows in front of her. The conference started and most of our questions were answered with variations of “we’re not sure yet.” When that first press conference was over, we left and soon learned that President G.W. Bush was coming the next day for a memorial ceremony. It was exciting, but we were constantly reminded about why we were at Virginia Tech.

You get caught up in covering the story. It’s really the only way you can handle all the sadness around you. People outside the news business might think we don’t get touched by the grief, but you do. The tragedy at Virginia Tech really hit home when I tried to speak with two young women huddled in a corner, working their cell phone, sad and trying to get an answer. They were trying to contact a friend they thought may have been at the crime scene, and they just couldn’t get an answer. I thanked them for their time and moved on, but to this day I don’t know if they learned if their friend was alive or had died that day. Of all the things I saw at Virginia Tech the two days I was there — that sticks with me.

Sadly enough, Virginia Tech was not the first multiple shooting I had ever covered. In January 2002, I went to the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va. after a gunman — a student who was facing expulsion — killed three people. I remember when the shooter was brought to the Buchanan County Courthouse for a hearing and how one of the victim’s friends reacted to seeing him. She just sat their with her head hung low and her eyes closed while reporters from all over the country sat or stood around her, waiting for her to speak. All she could say was, “he’s so small.”

All you can do in those moments is focus on doing your job and know that despite seeing the worst in human nurture, you will see the best side, too. At both the shootings I covered, I saw outpourings of sympathy and support for the victims and their families. When you see those acts of kindness, you come away knowing that hope is not lost. There are still things like rationality and compassion in the world.

On the day of the Connecticut shootings, we had to do some local stories to bring the tragedy home to local readers. The news had spread already and people offered their thoughts and prayers; again, we could see that there was still good in the world. Everyone was thinking about those children and their families.

I’m sure everyone across the country is hoping that we don’t see another mass shooting again. I know those reporters going to Newtown are hoping they never have to cover such a terrible event again. They will come away with their troubling memories, but they will also have the brighter side of humanity to give them some hope.

Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com

 

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