By Samantha Perry
The Bluefield Daily Telegraph
“Blink of an eye.” It’s a phrase commonly heard throughout our newsroom — one that denotes the randomness of the tragedy of the moment.
Death, too often, is a fixture in our office. Whether the byproduct of crime, domestic violence or chaos in the wake of a full pink moon, it leaps in via scanner traffic then takes a hard seat with the pounding of a reporter’s keyboard and the slideshow of a photographer’s images of a disaster of small-town biblical proportions.
It is a little after 5:30 p.m. when I encounter reporter Blake Stowers near the front door of our building. I am going in after a break. He is heading out.
“Tractor trailer exploded on I-77,” Blake tells me. He is going to the scene. Two seconds later photographer Eric DiNovo exits the building.
My mind automatically begins processing the news stories of the day, the former A-1 line-up and our action plan for the evening.
In the midst of it all, I have Mama Bear parting words for the guys: “Be careful.”
Riding the elevator to the third floor it strikes me — again — how life can change in an instant. In 10 minutes our front page has changed from West Virginia and Virginia U.S. senators touring the region with optimism to a horrific disaster.
Entering the newsroom I know it’s bad when I see Assistant Managing Editor Charles Owens, News Editor Andy Patton, Senior Reporter Greg Jordan and Copy Editor Cory Frazier all with ears locked to the scanner.
We listen as emergency responders arrive on scene. Not long after, there is a chilling call. “Better get the medical examiner here. We have three fatalities.”
I immediately text a source requesting a call.
My workday on this Thursday starts around 7 a.m. when I check my phone and learn of a fatal crash in McDowell County. A school secretary has died in a single-vehicle collision. I write the story and post it online — after a brief phone call wakening Charles.
Our online publishing tools require passwords — many, many passwords that I frequently can not remember. I call go-to guy Charles for assistance.
In a groggy voice he tells me the magic words so I can put the story on our website and Textcast the news.
Once posted, I watch as online readers begin gravitating to the story.
Hours later I am in my office when I am interrupted by a visit from “Mr. Martin.” On this busy news day it is a distraction that I do not need. The rapping on my office wall is annoying.
“Go away!” I tell him.
It may sound like I am being rude, but truly I am not. Mr. Martin is not a typical employee, customer or reader. He is a legend that requires a column unto himself. (Watch for that in coming weeks.)
Fortunately, on this day, Mr. Martin listens and the knocking stops.
Within minutes of the tragic I-77 accident I have a call back, and an initial, off-the-record report.
I learn that a tractor-trailer has crossed the median and hit a passenger vehicle head-on. Four individuals in the passenger vehicle are dead.
Greg puts in a call to Mercer County Emergency Management Director Tim Farley. Although on the busy scene, Tim graciously gives us enough information to alert the public to the accident and traffic delays.
As Greg is typing the update, Eric arrives on scene and immediately begins texting photos. Within minutes Andy has the information online.
Watching the newsroom in action, I am proud of our team — but also a little saddened. When disaster strikes, we are a well-oiled machine — a group that works together as one to get news out to the public. However, it is a bit disheartening that we all have so much experience covering major tragedies.
It’s almost 8 p.m. when I leave the office, but I have one more stop to make at the Hardee’s drive-through. The four-legged babies will each get a chicken tender as an apology for the long work day, and as a thank you for brightening my life on a daily basis.
Driving home it strikes me how the next day’s newspaper will report on five lives lost in an instant.
No warning. No notice. No advance plan.
It’s a sobering thought, and a situation we in the newsroom see on an all-too-frequent basis. It is also a reminder to regard each day as a precious gift.
“Blink of an eye.”
On this Easter Sunday, hold your friends and family close. Give them a hug, and tell them how much you love them.
Live this day as if there will be no tomorrow.
Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @BDTPerry.