(Life And) Death Through The Eyes Of A Journalist

I was sitting on my bed last night when I heard the fire engine sirens outside my window. I tried to drone out the piercing noise with my music, but I couldn’t. It was then the images came flowing back to me.

I saw my first dead body on Saturday. That’s something I don’t think any journalist ever forgets.

A little after 5:30 on Saturday night news of a structure fire came over the scanner. Police were saying it was on a road near the station. A producer ran outside and sure enough he could see the smoke. I clambered for my camera, jumped in the station car and rushed across the street.

I was one of the first on the scene, even before most of the firefighters. I remember standing on the roadway staring at the gray smoke swirling up into the sky from the mobile home. I saw the flames flying up out of the door; the burning orange inside captivated me. As I stood there for a couple of minutes, I remember thinking “wow this is not good,” but not once did I think someone was still in there.

It wasn’t long before a rush of firefighters came running in. Police cars and personal cars of volunteer firefighters began lining up and down the road near our station. I decided I needed to get closer for better video and climbed up the hill in the deep snow. As soon as I got up the hill I heard a voice behind me. “My son, my son!” I turned around a saw a lady in a blue sweater frantically running towards the home. “My son! That’s my son’s house!” she screamed out. Her distraught face was filled with fear. She stumbled a couple of times trying to get up the hill. A police officer came running towards her and grabbed her by the hand. But she didn’t want to hold his hand; she just wanted to see if her son was all right. Trembling, she kept trying to run towards the house, but the police officer held her back. “Ma'am” he told her. “Ma'am I can’t let you go over there.” “But it’s my son’s house,” she cried out again. She tried bolting for the home again, but she tripped and fell in the snow. But, she didn’t seem to care and began crawling in the snow towards the house. The officer helped her up, grabbed her shoe that had gotten stuck in the snow, and led her over to spot away from the home.

I looked away from the woman and focused back on the camera, trying to get some shots of the firefighters forging their way into the burning home. I had the camera pointed towards the door of the home and that’s when I heard more screams.

“Over here! Over here!” firefighters inside the home yelled out. I zoomed in with my camera and fixated it on the firefighters. I saw a couple of them struggling with something, but because there were so many of them I couldn’t figure out what it was. I kept my camera on them and my eyes staring at the display. When they were a few steps out the door and I looked up from the camera, that’s when I saw it. Two legs dangled from the firefighters’ arms. Black, burnt and limp.

The firefighters placed the man on the ground and surrounded him to see if there was anything they could do. It didn’t take long before they got up and reached for the blue tarp. It was too late. He was gone before they had even gotten inside the home.

I decided to swing the camera around and put the lens on the mother. I watched through the screen as the police officer held the woman’s hand and told her there was nothing they could do. I watched through the viewfinder of the camera as this woman’s whole life came crumbling down. It’s something I know as a journalist I will watch many more times.

I decided to turn the camera back to the house where the firefighters continued to battle the fire. While I was doing this, a police officer came over and told me to try and keep from taping the body. He also told me he would have the fire chief talk with me when he could. Soon other reporters started showing up and I spread the word. No one else had seen the body, but they saw the tarp sitting on the group and they knew.

The body lay there that whole night. Firefighters held up the tarp and surrounded it when they had to have an official look at it…when they had to have the mother identify the body. Finally at the end of the night they wrapped the body up into a brown blanket, put it on the stretcher and carried it off.

After the interview with the fire chief, I had to go back to the station and watch the video over and over. If I had known what the firefighters were pulling out the home I probably wouldn’t have taped it. But I didn’t know, and I had to relive that moment over and over at the station when putting together my VOSOT.


I’ve seen fires before (take a look at my "The Art Of Detaching Yourself From A Story" entry) and I’ve seen car wrecks bad enough for somebody to have died. But, besides funerals, I’ve never seen a dead body. It makes you wonder how firefighters, police officers, military officers do their jobs. Do they become numb to it? Do they feel guilty if they lose someone or do they know they did the best they could? They really are courageous people.

It makes me think of journalists how have to work through crises like Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. They really are courageous people as well.

I’ve lost plenty of loved ones. I even lost a friend in preschool from a fire. But nothing really compares to seeing a dead body being carried away and not knowing what that person was like in life. You only get a glance of them in death.

If I didn’t say it hurt to see the legs just dangling there limp, I’d be lying.

If I didn’t say it made me sick to my stomach watching the video over and over of the firefighters carrying the man, I’d be lying. I just wish I could have put a face and a personality with the name.

If I didn’t say it hurt to see the woman falling in the snow yelling “that’s my son”, I’d be lying.

No journalist wants to meet a person for the first time on the worst day of their life, but it happens. It’s just part of the job.

When covering these stories, we have to "put on our reporter face," and watch death through the eyes of journalist; that means holding in our feelings and focusing on the story at hand. That means getting up the next morning after stories like this one and moving onto the next one. I’ve heard people say journalists are heartless people, but trust me, most of us may look like we move on from stories from this… but we don’t, it will always be embedded in our minds.

The night of the fire, I found out his name was Jerry, but his friends called him Gerald. Now that I know his name, I hope someday, before I leave Columbia, I will run into someone who can tell me something about Gerald’s life. This way I will have memories of not just his death, but of his life.


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