Like everyone in the United States, I’ve been glued to the television set watching haunting images coming out of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The work of our peers, the photographers and reporters who plunged into the chaos of the city, has been stellar.
This has been first-class journalism produced under extraordinary conditions. In the months to come, some of those journalists undoubtedly will share stories of how they covered this disaster.
I’ve covered only one event that I’d call a disaster, although it was nowhere near the scale of Katrina. Working on a disaster teaches a journalist that putting out a paper under trying circumstances is a group effort that involves photographers, reporters, editors, copy-editors and designers all working like a machine.
In the field, reporters also face a different set of pressures. They have to get information from people who are suffering. In perhaps no other situation does the public and the media interact so closely as they do during a disaster.
In May 1986, I was the day police reporter. My job was to call to local police agencies to see if anything was going on. A dispatcher in a neighboring county told me that a group of teenage hikers was overdue while on a day hike to the top of Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest mountain about an hour’s drive from Portland. Overdo hikers aren’t a big deal. More than 10,000 people annually climb the mountain. But the day looked to be slow, so my city editor sent me up to the mountain with a photographer to see what was going on.
A thick cloud cover hung over the mountain. A terrible snowstorm had hit, and the temperature had plunged. There was no visibility. I called my editor to say that something awful was about to unfold. I learned that 13 climbers — three adults and 10 students from a private Portland school — were lost on the mountain.
For a while, I was the only reporter on the scene. Then the parents arrived. I asked questions, then all of us were stuck together in Timberline Lodge while rescuers set out to see if they could find the climbers. They returned, snow and ice hanging from their gear, with nothing to report. Then, two climbers — one student and an adult guide hired by the school — stumbled into the lodge to report that the climbers had taken shelter in a snow cave somewhere on the mountain.
In the meantime, other reporters arrived, first from Portland, then the region and, eventually, the nation. The mountain remained trapped in the storm for three days. Then the sky cleared and the rescuers found the bodies of three climbers on the slopes. One person wore no parka. Another, no gloves. Two had taken off their boots. The madness of hypothermia made them think they were hot. The next day they found the cave. The eight climbers inside were so cold that intravenous lines could not pierce their frozen skin. Six of them died.
I was sitting with a father in my news car, talking and taking notes, when we both heard over the police radio that bodies had been found. He broke down, crying and running from my car. I followed to capture the scene.
Disaster coverage brings a reporter close to the raw, emotional, heart of the story, and it’s not always easy for the reporter, or the people he writes about. At night, I’d sit in one section of the lodge restaurant, 15 feet away from worried parents, and I’d have to buttonhole them in the hallways to ask questions about their children. That was my job, and it was uncomfortable.
On the 10-year anniversary of the disaster, I wrote a piece for The Oregonian. This passage illustrates that’s it’s not easy for anyone:
The woman at the front desk would be about his daughter’s age. Another one of those reminders. He strides into the reception area, dispenses a handshake and leads the way to his office.
“The Oregonian made this dreadfully difficult 10 years ago,” Don McClave says. “Pursuing information about the insurance settlement; harassing families about the investigation. Ghoulish behavior.”
He shifts in his chair. He moves as if his shirt is too tight or the chair too small. He braids his hands behind his head, tucks them between his knees. Anger and disgust seep out of him. He hasn’t been asked about the climb for eight years. But if there is to be a story, he wants his say.
He waits for the questions.
He gives terse answers.
He bristles against a long silence.
Then he fills the gap.
“Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent,” he says. “All of us were beset by the media, by movie companies, by television producers, by insensitive and self-serving groups trying to capitalize on the incident.”
He is proud that none of the families sold its story.
“We didn’t hurt each other,” he says.
He and his wife didn’t know most of the other families. The climb was for sophomores. His daughter, Susan, was a senior. She had made the climb as a sophomore and went along again to help.
Her father softens.
“It never goes away,” he says. “You learn to live with it with the help of the church, professional help, friends. But we deal with it every day of our lives. We always will.”
We face each other across a gulf miles wide, each in our roles. Me, the inquisitor. He, the guardian of the past.
He snaps to attention.
“My son is grown and married,” he announces. “My wife and I are here. Other than that, I’m not going to talk about our lives. Anyone interested in reliving the accident can read the papers from 10 years ago. It was awful then. It is awful now.”
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.