Friday, January 28, 2011

A tragedy I'll never forget

Twenty five years ago, I was a young reporter at the Battle Creek Enquirer in Michigan.

As an afternoon paper, we had our stories written and edited by morning so the presses could begin to roll and deliver copies in newsstands by the start of the lunch hour. It was a different era of news back then. There were morning papers and afternoon ones. I never inquired why Battle Creek chose to be a "p.m." paper, but it worked for our readers.

With the stress of deadline over, I got up from my desk and began walking over to the "news desk" side of our newsroom. These were the folks who edited our stories, put headlines on them and designed the pages (we called it "laying out" the pages).

I was a news junkie. I would use this time to glance over the shoulder of our "wire" editor, who would check the computer a few times to see if there was any late-breaking news that needed to be included in the "home" edition. The "home" would be printed when the presses stopped and changed out the rolls of paper. The wire editor was one of the few with the privilege to view stories coming out over the "wire." This was long before Google would give everyone this kind of access. By reading over the wire editor's shoulder, I was able to see the latest stories popping up around the country and the world.

In reality, we had about two hours between the downtown edition and the home edition printing cycles. So, if a big story broke, either locally or somewhere else, we had a chance to get the "latest" story to our loyal subscribers by the time they got home. Yeah, kids got out of school, jumped on their bikes and delivered the Enquirer way before dinner.

As I walked by the wire editor, a "holy s..t" muttered from his mouth. On his screen was a notice from the Associated Press.

"Flash: The Shuttle Challenger has exploded on takeoff."

Back then, a "Flash" was the most serious, most instant way the Associated Press could alert news organizations around the world that a major story just happened. It took on so much more importance today than the typical "breaking news" we see on TV today. Back then, "Flash" outranked "Bulletin" for urgency.

It took us a couple of seconds to comprehend. I immediately ran into the editor's office and said we needed to stop the presses NOW. Yeah, I got to say that famous line. It took Dave Smith a couple of seconds to comprehend what I was telling him.

He got on the phone to the press room, then the publisher and the began barking out orders. He and the news editor ran toward the press room to stop the presses. Some papers were already printed and being loaded into delivery trucks. We stopped those trucks, but one had already left. However, the circulation folks managed to catch up with the driver and caught him as he was loading the first paper into the news rack. There was no way an Enquirer was going to be sold without this story in it.

As a journalist, certain instincts and training kick in. You must put aside your emotions and focus on your job. This appearance of a cold heart usually draws criticism and hatred from people who can't figure out why we are asking questions during a difficult time. The questions may seem heartless, but we have to gather information - even in the worst of moments.

I felt a certain emptiness in my gut - this was going to be a very, very difficult next several hours, even days.

When a space mission like this - with all the built-up emotions of putting our first teacher into space - goes terribly wrong, a journalist realizes not only is this big news, but it needs to be "covered." You'll see what I mean, in a moment.

This mission - unlike most other Shuttle missions before it - was special to, well, pehaps every American. There were thousands of teachers across the country who applied for the spot eventually won by Christa McAuliffe. Christa's journey to the moment she was seen smiling and waving to the crowd as she boarded was documented in incredible detail. Millions of students followed her training, turned in papers about space travel and possibly dreamed about being in space one day.

The Space Shuttle program, when launched in the early 1980s, did capture our attention and raised our spirits. But like the other space programs before it, the country began losing interest in Shuttles a few years after the first launch.

With "STS-51-L" set to launch on January 28, 1986, NASA had both re-captured the country's interest in why we go to space, and began giving us the idea that astronauts could be any of us.

As David, my editor, returned from the pressroom, our tiny little newsroom sprung into action. Some were still in shock. Half-eaten lunches on our desks were being tossed aside for notepads and phone calls. The first few paragraphs of the story pushed their way out onto the wires. The TVs came one. It became incredibly clear a major disaster just hit the nation.

Our instincts told us we needed to cover this story - fast.

First, we quickly needed a new downtown edition with just the headline on top and the first 6 or 8 paragraphs - and papers needed to hit newsstands before lunch was over. As the news desk was redoing the front page that would be soon burned into new press plates, our newsroom began figuring out assignments and how we would try to "cover" this story.

We had two hours.

Dave and the other senior editors made a great decision. We would create an "EXTRA" with four pages that would be "wrapped" around the papers we had first printed. The four pages would be filled with mostly stories our staff would write, mixed in with the stories we could get from the "wires."

Trace Christenson (my friend who still works there) remembered a letter to the editor from a former Battle Creek resident about how he enjoyed his new home in Florida because he could watch the Shuttle launches. Trace tracked him down and got a "Battle Creek" resident's first-hand view of the disaster.

Two local teachers applied and one was in the final rounds to be the first teacher in space. Local classrooms were watching the launch. Our education writer, Nancy Kaley, was able to track down both teachers. We tracked down professors at nearby universities who were space exploration and rocket experts. How could something like this happen? Their theories proved to be mostly accurate. Our photographers caught people glued to TVs in storefronts. There were many other stories we wrote.

As a "newsman," this was our finest moment. We published stories in two hours that took some news organizations two days to produce. We published in-depth and meaningful articles. We gave our readers about as complete a package as they could get that day.

I still have a copy of the front page of the "Extra" next to my desk. I'll dig out the complete section soon.

And, then, after reading the stories....I'll probably cry. I'll cry for Christa and her six crew mates. For the thousands who built and got the Challenger ready to fly. For the young, innocent dreams instantly shattered. For a nation whose heart never completely healed from this cold day that took a terrible turn just one minute and 13 seconds after liftoff.

No comments: