Eagle reporter details challenges of first days' coverage

05/13/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

Around 11 p.m. May 4, I was yawning and on my way to bed after a long day at work when the phone rang. My editor, L. Kelly, told me that a tornado had hit Greensburg only about an hour before.

Initial reports were that the twister had pulverized two-thirds of the town.

The call sent me darting around my house, stuffing clothes and toiletries into a small backpack and grabbing caffeinated soft drinks and cereal bars.

In recent years, I had covered two deadly tornadoes and had responded to multiple homicides, deadly fires, fatal traffic pileups, dramatic rescues and all kinds of bizarre emergencies. I had taken "hostile-environment" training before a reporting stint in Iraq.

The job of a first-responder journalist seems straightforward: Get there fast. See it, hear it, smell it. Be accurate, complete, fair, sensitive. Capture the humanity. Help someone if you can, but don't get hurt yourself. Don't get in the way of emergency workers. Get the best story you can, and get it to your editors as soon as possible. And during all of this, keep your cell phone charged.

To accomplish all that, you have to find a way around obstacles.

Getting to the scene

At Haviland, just minutes east of Greensburg, people wearing reflective vests blocked the road. I showed my Eagle badge to one man who walked up. I said I had to get to the scene.

"Why?" he asked, throwing up his arms, irritation ringing in his voice. He shook his head at me. He told me I could talk to evacuees right there, at the Haviland school. It was tempting to interview them, but it would delay getting to where everything started.

I pulled over and waited, gathering my thoughts. I quickly drove to the school, where people seemed subdued, and headed back to the roadblock, ready to give a persuasive argument. I had to suppress my anger over the delay.

But before I could speak, another man in a vest told me to take the first road to the north, past the railroad tracks -- a way around.

At about 1:30 a.m., I parked on the east edge of Greensburg, parted ways with the veteran reporter who rode with me, and started walking past smashed buildings.

Wearing reinforced boots, I stepped over and around downed wires and exposed nails. I had received a tetanus shot and a mandatory battery of vaccinations before going to Iraq in 2003.

I wished I had my old flashlight. While covering the Hoisington tornado in 2001, I gave the light to a woman who lost her husband, her house and nearly all of her possessions, including her flashlight. She had graciously shared her story with me. Giving her my flashlight was the least I could do.

The flashlight had a long, flexible handle. While covering the Wichita-Haysville tornado in 1999, I wrapped the flashlight handle around my neck and aimed the beam at my notebook or the hazards around me.

In Greensburg, I strode down one street after another, pausing to get bits of information from people I encountered. Using my cell phone, I started calling in brief descriptions to Kelly in the newsroom. She was continually posting information on our Web site, Kansas.com.

In the Internet age, newspapers have become 24-hour news-delivery operations.

My top priority: find search-and-rescue teams looking for victims. I learned that rescuers might still be evacuating people from the hospital on the far end of town. I got directions. I had already walked a mile from my car. I had never ventured into Greensburg before, only driven across it on my way to vacation destinations and story assignments.

That night, street lights and street signs were gone. Moonlight outlined jagged rubble.

As I approached the hospital -- missing much of its roof and at least one wall -- I saw big fire trucks roll up. They carried about two dozen members of the Wichita and Sedgwick County fire departments, trained to rescue people trapped in rubble.

From responding to emergencies in Wichita over the past decade, I recognized some of the firefighters. In 2001, days after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, I had traveled with some of them to New York fire houses.

At the Greensburg hospital, I watched as they made sure no one remained trapped. I got permission from a fire supervisor to stay with the crews.

In Wichita, Kelly stayed up with me, updating Kansas.com until 6 a.m., when she went home for two hours sleep.

I'd lost track of the three other journalists The Eagle sent to Greensburg that night. We'd fanned out, and I couldn't reach them by phone. I didn't know it, but they couldn't contact the newsroom, either; the tornado had knocked out their cell phone provider's service in Greensburg.

My plan was to stay with the firefighters, tell the story through them.

I had gone to Iraq in 2003 as an "embedded" journalist with an Army tank unit from Fort Riley. In Greensburg, I ended up embedded with firefighters.

Waiting for sunrise

At the staging area on U.S. 54, on the west end of town, we waited for the sun to rise, when thorough searches could begin. We waited and waited.

By 7 a.m., I had been up 24 hours but didn't feel tired.

I was tempted to walk off and find other stories, but I was afraid that I might get stopped by local police, who didn't know me, who might make me leave.

At about 7:30, I realized I had been standing with firefighters in what looked like blood, spread across the pavement, revealed by the morning light.

I shivered. I had left my jacket in my car, and the wind was cold.

I got a boost from a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, a banana and a Styrofoam cup of coffee. Thank you, Salvation Army or Red Cross. I can't remember which of you fed me. The firefighters shared their water. Covering a disaster, you take nourishment when you can.

As we waited, a Wichita police officer came up and said, "Hey, you want a good story?" and led me 50 yards to a wrecked pickup, one of the few vehicles sitting upright. The officer introduced me to Brad Stauner, a 46-year-old who had been passing through Greensburg on his way to Wichita.

That's how I got the story of how Stauner and several other people survived the tornado by huddling in a convenience store walk-in cooler.

Scope of the damage

Finally, the firefighters got a new assignment. Around 8, they broke into teams and walked street by street on the southwest side of town to check smashed homes for survivors -- or bodies.

We walked up and down over a sea of rubble, bristling with nails, jagged metal and shards of glass. I saw firefighters shine beams into basements and air pockets under rubble. With spray paint, they marked each building they searched.

One of the fire supervisors told me that another crew, blocks away, had found a body -- a "code black." I headed that way.

As you begin to piece together the story of a tornado, it's important to know where people died, how they died and who they are.

I found a fire supervisor 50 yards from the body. An ambulance crew waited nearby. I asked a few basic questions: Is the body in a house or outside? Man or woman? Old or young?

Man, probably middle-aged, the supervisor said. That's about all he knew, or would divulge.

I kept a distance -- out of respect for the victim and his family and out of respect for emergency personnel, who are protective of human remains.

I turned away from the lot where the body lay and noticed residents just down the street, gathering heirlooms from shattered century-old homes. They didn't seem to notice the commotion around the body -- which was hidden by debris -- and I didn't mention it, not wanting to upset them.

They had been through enough.

Back down the street, a dozen rescuers and medical workers picked their way to the body and carefully removed it, placing it on a gurney.

By then, I had seen too many smashed homes, smelled too much soggy insulation and heard too many alarms beeping jarringly amid the debris.

Sending the story

I hiked back to my car.

The night before, I didn't have time to stop at the office to get a portable computer, and with electricity and land lines knocked out, there was no guarantee I could have transmitted electronically anyway.

So, after 27 hours without sleep, I wrote my story out longhand with a pen on a notepad.

It took repeated attempts for my cell phone to connect with a colleague in the newsroom. The whistling wind made it hard for her to hear me. I moved behind a windbreak -- a shop where men were busy fixing tires punctured by debris -- and read aloud while she typed:

"As the faint sun rose Saturday, bit by bit it revealed the enormity of the tornado damage.

"Near what had been a convenience store on U.S. 54, a moving van lay on its side, spilling out a household of possessions -- a dining room set and golf clubs lay in a heap...."

For me, it was a relief to get the story out. I put a sun reflector in the windshield of my car, leaned the seat back and slept peacefully for almost two hours.

But I knew there were more stories to tell, and I needed to get back to work. I grabbed a notebook and started walking.

That evening, I left Greensburg and passed through Haviland, right before another tornado swooped through.

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