One moment in time has captured my attention for these last few years. I watched a man die. Standing a few hundred feet away, watching through my TV camera lens, I watched as paramedics tried to save a man who had been shot.
I remember it as if it were last night. An overnight producer called me at 4:30AM to send me to an eighteen wheeler accident. When I arrived in the general area I could not find the accident. I called the producer, and as we were talking she said, “Hold on.” Through the phone I could hear the scanners in the newsroom going off. The fire department has a distinctive tone they broadcast when there’s an emergency call. As soon as I heard it I knew something else was going on.
After a few seconds, she told me there had just been a shooting right down the street from where I was. It just happened. I turned my car around and headed the opposite direction down North Market. When I rolled up on the scene the cops hadn’t even arrived. The medics were there, alone, treating the victim. The suspect had fled on foot. My heart was racing.
It may have been 4:30AM, but for me it was just another day. Just one more shooting. After covering so many they just become normal. And there’s a formula. No matter how different each scene might be, they can all be told using the same formula. I got out of my car and popped my trunk. Camera…check. Tripod… check. Microphone… Check. Set up the camera. Start rolling. On anything. Doesn’t matter at first. Just shoot the action.
In this case it was a no brainer. The medics were treating the victim right in front of me. I had a perfect medium shot. Just enough to tell what they were doing, but still not showing anything too graphic. I stayed on that shot as long as the medics were there treating him. Meanwhile, I watched my back. The suspect had fled on foot, after all.
Eventually they put the man on a stretcher and loaded him into the ambulance. I rolled on the whole thing. Then, knowing it would be a few minutes before they left for the hospital, I started getting other shots. A nice establishing shot of the gas station. Medium shot of the ambulance. Tight shot of the man’s vehicle where he had been shot while pumping gas. Tight shots of the police officers working the scene.
I became so focused on shooting video of the scene that I didn’t notice it at first. But eventually, I realized that the ambulance hadn’t left. It had been about 15 minutes. Quite a long time for the ambulance to sit in the parking lot with a gunshot victim. Then it slowly dawned on me. “This guy didn’t make it”, I told myself. After 30 minutes I knew I was right. My suspicions were confirmed when the coroner showed up on the scene. For a brief moment I felt something. I don’t know if it was empathy for the victim or his family, but it only lasted for asecond. Then I got ahold of myself and went back to work. I got my video of the coroner getting out of the car and walking up on scene.
Then a few minutes later the victim’s family showed up. I didn’t see them at first. I heard them, wailing uncontrollably. They were off to the side, hidden behind some cars where I couldn’t get a shot of them. I’ve seen and heard many, many people grieve over the years. Some stoically hold it all inside. Others let everything out and weep and wail. But this… I don’t know if there’s a word for what I heard. Maybe I’m remembering it differently. Maybe their wails and moans were just like everyone else’s I heard over the years. But for some reason their wailing haunts me. It was the most chilling, blood-curdling sound I’ve ever heard. Like it didn’t come from a human being, but an animal that’s been pushed to its absolute extreme. There are two sounds I will never forget. One was the cries of an infant that had been ejected from a vehicle after an accident on the interstate. The infant was OK, but not its parents. I don’t think it was old enough to be aware of its surroundings, but I think it’s interesting that it cried and cried while its parents were being loaded into the emergency helicopter. When I hear a helicopter I think of that baby. I can’t forget its cries. And neither can I forget the bone-chilling weeping of that shooting victim’s family.
As I stood there, hearing the wailing of this grief-stricken family, I knew what came next. I knew what I had to do. It was my job to walk up to them and ask them if they’d like to comment on TV. While I worked in thebusiness I knew that was my job, and I became used to it. That night was like every other. I did my job and felt, well, nothing. But now, years later, there is nothing I’m more ashamed of than those kinds of assignments. On this particular occasion, they said no. But many times grief-stricken families said yes. That always surprised me. But regardless, it feels as if I took advantage of their grief. I can rationalize it and justify it all I want. I can say it was my job. I can say that it was newsworthy. But the truth is… I just feel ashamed. Like I was contributing to a corrupt system that sensationalized the news by preying on the vulnerable.
They said no, and I didn’t push. I just went back to my camera and waited for the police to comment on-camera. Then it was time to go. Time to edit the story. And I had a decision to make. Do I show the video of the medics treating the victim. I struggled with that one. On one hand he was alive at the time I was shooting the video. And there was nothing overly graphic in the video. Nothing that would make you immediately recoil. But at the same time, I knew he was dead. As I watched the video in the edit bay, over and over and over, I tried to separate myself from the event. I tried to think objectively. But all I could think was that I was looking at a dead man. Did I really want to show a dead man on TV? Others in the business don’t struggle with that kind of decision. But I did. And I chose not to show the video. I had plenty of other shots to use. I walked out of the TV station a few minutes later very tired, but feeling better about myself.
By this time the sun had already risen. It was almost 7:00AM. It was a Sunday morning, and I had to be at church in an hour. So I rushed home, took a shower, and got ready for church. What’s crazy… At the time I was used to being at a crime scene. It was just another normal day for me. But I think I had a hard time adjusting to the real world. It was hard for me to “snap out” of work mode on a crime scene and engage in social scenarios like church where I was supposed to just be me. After covering the news for seven years I think “myself” had been slowly chipped away until there was nothing left. It was hard to be myself when I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had seen so many shootings, stabbings, murders, car accidents, tornadoes, hurricanes, and so many countless other tragedies that I just… felt…nothing.
I tried to “readjust” that morning. I really did. But what I find so interesting… I remember so many vivid details from that morning out on the crime scene. But I remember nothing from just a few hours later when I was at church. Nothing.
Now, almost 7 years later, I’m still struggling to readjust. The “real world” isn’t so normal to me. So much time has passed since I’ve been in the business, but I still feel more comfortable at a crime scene than I do in an office.
And I wish I could say that I finally feel something. I wish I could write one of those articles where you share an interesting moral or principle at the end. But it’s still hard for me to feel something. And what I learned after covering the news for so long… Sometimes life is just really, really messy. It doesn’t always turn out well for some. Bad things happen to good people.
I went through a phase when it was hard to get up in the morning because this observation weighed on my heart so heavily. But day after day, I kept getting up. One step at a time I kept moving forward. And now, here I am… Years later I’m finally aware of all this going on inside of me that I’ll at least write about it. And I think that’s a step in the right direction.