Wednesday, January 28, 2009

when hell breaks loose

The way I see it, 46 people were lucky tonight.

Forty-five of them were children from West Valley Middle School, who all avoided major injuries after their bus driver lost control of the bus (for reasons unknown) and went for a wild, half-mile ride, hitting 12 other vehicles and injuring 26 people.

The final person was me, who got sent out to cover the story.

When I first got the page, it sounded pretty inconsequential: "PhoenixFD Medical Response 67th Ave / McDowell."

That was it. I thought, "That's vague," and shrugged my shoulders, more focused on my editor's critiques of a police story.

Then the next page came in: "PhoenixFD MED This will involve a school bus."

That triggered my editor. Instantly, his tired eyes widened.

"Oh no. This could be big," he said, rubbing his face with his hands.

I could hear both the terrible anticipation of a story involving injury to children and the lust for a big-time story in his voice. It's something we all share: a lust for stories.

Nothing can compare to the stress of driving to a scene in rush-hour traffic. I needed to get there as quickly as possible, but grid-lock had other plans. It took about 25 minutes to get to into the area and another 30 minutes to navigate my way through displaced traffic--the accident ran a gauntlet of nearly half a mile and police closed a good two miles of major road.

Even when I got to the scene, it was still chaos. Police and fire officers patrolled the perimeter of yellow police tape and news media of all kinds--television with large vans and cameras, radio with hand-held recorders, and me with my notebook--ran around talking to PIOs.
This is what I saw when I got to the scene:

The bus looked bad, but apparently other cars looked worse.

It took a long time to straighten out the facts; PIOs came up with new numbers for injuries, vehicles, and children involved every couple of minutes. I spent a good two hours there, among the police and other media workers, calling in facts and quotes as I collected them.

J-school can't compare to getting out in the field; that's where you learn real journalism.

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