June 8, 1998:
In The Eagle newsroom I heard desk drawers slamming suddenly, chairs falling backward.
Photo editor Bo Rader sprinted for the elevator, slinging a camera bag over his shoulder. He’d heard 911 calls on the police scanner.
“Bo! What?” I called out.
“DeBruce Grain,” Bo yelled back. “It blew up.”
The DeBruce Grain Elevator blew up in a grain dust explosion southwest of Wichita. More than half a mile of skyscraper-high concrete silos went off like a string of firecrackers. Seven died; many suffered. We scrambled.
That story shook us and taught empathy, decisiveness and speed. Most of that drama unfolded outside our building at 825 E. Douglas, but we wedded stories to photos to print inside these walls. DeBruce bonded us closer as a family, as stories bonded us many times, before and since.
Bulldozers and a wrecking ball will destroy these walls starting Monday.
I want to tell a few stories from inside these walls, to preserve them – if only briefly.
As my friend Dion Lefler says, “We are artists, but our medium is chalk on a sidewalk.”
‘Perez!’ he growled
Feb. 20, 1991:
Suzanne Perez, a rookie reporter, watched with dread as Bill Hirschman and Hurst Laviana built a story. Nancy Shoemaker, age 9, found at last, murdered. An intensive seven-month search, concluded.
She felt scared. She thought blunt-spoken Jerry Ratts, an editor here, might send her to the Shoemaker home. She was 22. She’d never interviewed grieving people.
“I tried to sneak to the elevator and out the building,” Suzanne Perez Tobias said last week. But Jerry had a sharp eye.
“Perez!” Jerry growled.
“Nancy’s father, Wayne Shoemaker, chatted for a half-hour or more,” Suzanne said last week. “He talked about how his daughter hugged everyone she met.
“I raced back to the office and filed my story, then went into the bathroom on the third floor and wept.”
Could it be BTK? ‘Nah’
March 19, 2004:
The BTK serial killer resurfaced after 25 years, by mailing a message in an envelope to this newsroom. Hurst Laviana opened the message.
I watched Hurst and fellow reporter Tim Potter agonize for an hour, trying to make sense of it. It had no words, only three faded Polaroid images of a blond woman lying, possibly dead, on a carpeted floor. Beside those images on the sheet was a faded image of a driver’s license for a blond woman, Vicki Wegerle.
The disturbing thing, Hurst told us, was that Vicki was a victim of a murder still unsolved. He’d written about her. So this image was four-star creepy.
Tim looked over Hurst’s shoulder. Hey, Tim said. The return address on the envelope was from a “Bill Thomas Killman.” The abbreviation for that? BTK.
Could this be the BTK serial killer?
“Nah,” Hurst said. But minutes later Hurst turned the information over to the police, and set out to prove himself wrong.
‘God, that was horrible’
“I wrote hundreds of damned stories,” Frank Garofalo said last week.
▪ Jan. 16, 1965: Frank raced from this building to walk amid the smell of burning jet fuel and falling ash from houses incinerated around 20th and Piatt. A KC-135 tanker plane with 31,000 gallons of jet fuel blew up in a crash.
“God, that was horrible – just a big old massive hole in the ground, still smoldering. I talked to people who survived.” Thirty people didn’t.
▪ Oct. 2, 1970: Five years later, Frank was about to go home when the first word about the Wichita State University football team’s plane crash came. Frank drove to WSU, talked with people, wrote stories – worked another complete shift.
▪ Aug. 12, 1976: Frank coordinated reporters racing toward downtown, where sniper Michael Soles was shooting people from a top floor of the Holiday Inn. Soles had put a rifle bullet through a car windshield, killing freelance photographer Joe Goulart as he drove to the hotel with his cameras. So Frank called Joe’s family and wrote a story.
“Joe was a friend,” Frank said. “A shame.”
▪ Nov. 8, 1980: Frank was at home when the phone call came: His son Paul, only 24, a Wichita police officer, was shot to death in his patrol car, in the 1000 block of East Ninth Street, only minutes by car from The Eagle.
Frank took a week off. Then he went back to work, at The Eagle building and City Hall, where he supervised reporters.
“It was good to get back,” said Frank, now 86. “You get to work something else in your mind.”
Sometimes we prep. Sometimes we can’t
May 25, 1955:
Photographer Charlie Rollins, only 25 then, ran out of the Eagle building, shoving only what he could stuff into a pocket as he ran: five negative holders, for maybe 10 shots, max. Even fewer flashbulbs, maybe half a dozen – and it was dark.
What he found half an hour later, in Udall, Kansas, was 87 of the town’s 600 people dead in the darkness. The only warning they had was the roar of the tornado as it arrived. Charlie saw a young man carrying the body of a mud-spattered boy, searching for an ambulance. Charlie shot two frames only.
The boy died. Charlie raced back to Wichita, not knowing whether more tornadoes swirled in the dark around him, not knowing whether his grandmother, living in a Udall nursing home, was still alive.
Coverage from the air
Bo Rader didn’t shoot pictures at DeBruce on the day he ran for the newsroom elevator.
Instead, on the way out the door, Bo called a helicopter rental company, and sent photographer Travis Heying to the chopper. Bo was hurrying that camera bag to Travis, who flew over DeBruce only minutes before authorities closed the air space.
Bo had also picked up his phone in this building three years before, on April 19, 1995, minutes after truck bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 people at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Bo got Eagle staffers a helicopter to fly down there without checking first with his boss.
Not all our moments here seem as stellar.
In 2001, when McVeigh was only days from execution, managing editor Sherry Chisenhall came to my desk here.
Drive to Oklahoma City and report a “mood of the city” piece, she said.
I thought this was a lame idea, and said so. Which wasn’t fair. Sherry’s expectation with her “mood of the city” shorthand was that I’d refine her idea, and do it right.
I knew this. But what I said next was a fine example of, 1, my stress talking and, 2, flagrant disrespect:
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked. “Ask Oklahomans at QuikTrips whether a mass murderer deserves clemency? Should I use those cliches ‘healing,’ and ‘closure?’ ”
“Only if I close my office door on your fingers,” Sherry said.
Stan Finger, who goes to Mass every Sunday, spent weeks in here reporting a story in 2000 that put the Catholic priest Robert Larson in prison. It started when a family came to him because their tormented son had committed suicide.
Stan talked with many more families and pieced together how Larson had sexually abused altar boys in betrayals spanning three decades, multiple parishes and numerous victims.
Catholics then had no idea how widespread the clergy abuse was. Some accused Stan of smearing the church.
But Larson went to prison, not because authorities caught him, not because the church turned him in, but because Stan’s stories prompted investigations leading to a conviction.
She got the story
Jan. 4, 2012: Boeing Wichita refused to let aviation reporter Molly McMillin show up at an all-hands meeting at the Boeing site. The company had given employees who were out of town or on vacation a number to call in. So Molly sat inside these walls and called that number. She listened as Boeing executives told employees about plans to close the Wichita site and move the work.
To a city so dependent upon aviation jobs, this was devastating news – jobs gone, an economy gut-punched. Molly told the story virtually as it happened. As she was taking notes, reporter Carrie Rengers looked over her shoulder and tweeted out the news.
Boeing executives came to The Eagle right after the meeting to give us the news. But we had it already.
‘We missed a few’
One day years ago a reporter stood at the newsroom window with Jerry Ratts, the blunt editor. We loved watching the sunsets outside the west window.
“There’s about 365,000 stories out there in the naked city, Jerry,” the reporter said.
“Well, then,” Jerry said, “I think we missed a few today.”
Jerry and Frank Garofalo worked for decades here – Charlie Rollins, too. And we stand on their shoulders.
The Eagle is not a building.
It’s Jerry and Frank, Lori and Randy and Hurst. It’s Bartel and Boone, Edgerley and Alice, Joe and Chuck, Charlie and Hoot and Jerry Clark. It’s Judy Thomas covering the “Summer of Mercy.” It’s Harper and Tuttle, Corn and Sartore, Curtright and Cross and Craig Stock. It’s Getz and Koetting, Plumlee and Lutz, and on well-dressed days it is Mark McCormick, pocket handkerchief neatly tucked.
Every time a long-timer leaves, it’s like a library disappears, with all its encyclopedias, words, photos, recordings, archives, videos, listings, pictures, facts, commas and semicolons.
Charlie Rollins and Jerry Ratts came to the party on April 22, the last gathering of the Eagle tribe and all its elders inside these walls. Frank Garofalo wasn’t with us.
I wondered why. So I called Frank and he told me – we forgot to invite him.
So I went downstairs, on the world’s slowest elevator. On the first floor, I scribbled on the blank wall where we all wrote our names on that Saturday. The wreckers will tear out that wall next week. But I’m preserving what I scribbled, right here.
You get the last word, Frank.
“Frank Garofalo 1956-1992. I wrote hundreds of damned stories.”
Contributing: Frank Garofalo, Dion Lefler, Beccy Tanner, Suzanne Perez Tobias, Bo Rader, Denise Neil, Hurst Laviana, Tim Potter, Molly McMillin, Kirk Seminoff, Tom Shine, Stan Finger.