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Two Faces of Tragedy

The most difficult thing for me to do as a newspaper reporter was interview people who had suffered a personal tragedy. Accident victims, crime victims, fire victims, families of murder victims -- I had to intrude on their personal space at a time when they were most vulnerable and ask them to give me quotes for publication. Ugh, I hated it.

The reactions I got could go either way. Sometimes people resented my being there, like the poor woman in Houston who snapped at a CNN reporter last week. I had similar experiences with people I tried to interview during my reporting days and could empathize with how felt. I would apologize and withdraw as quickly and graciously as I could (sometimes at the expense of later getting admonished by an editor for "not getting the story").

One evening a photographer and I were on assignment when we heard over the police radio that a domestic shooting had occurred in the predominantly African American section of town. We happened to be minutes away from there and actually arrived on the scene before the police. Big mistake. An angry crowd of neighborhood residents encircled us saying things like "Go home," and "How come the press only comes here when once of us kills another one?" We backed into our car and got in, just as the police arrived and dispersed the crowd (and probably saved our butts).

But often, and I would say more often, people appreciated the chance to talk to someone, to share what they were going through, and to receive whatever advice they could from a reporter who could usually offer them some helpful information, like how to contact police, social services, and others who could help them.

One event stands out in my mind -- a fire in a two-story flat in Binghamton, which chased a single mom and her two adorable little girls out into the frigid early January night with only their nightgowns and a doll that the youngest managed to grab as they fled the flames. (The fire most likely started from a dried out Christmas tree that the busy Mom had not yet moved out of the apartment.) Even as a jaded 24-year-old kid my heart melted for them. The girls were so overwhelmed they could barely cry. They had not yet processed what was happening to them. They just huddled in the cold with their Mom, sharing a blanket that a firefighter had provided, watching everything they owned go up in flames.

The Mom, instead of resenting my presence, clung to it. She had to talk to someone, had to vent, had to share what she was thinking as her thoughts were whirring a mile-a-minute. She poured out her soul to me that night, and the girls huddled closer to me, perhaps sensing that their mother's familiarity in talking with me signaled that I was safe. The youngest one even held up her doll and proudly told me it was her favorite Christmas gift. The reality that it was all she had left had not reached her yet, thankfully. But as it started to sink in for the Mom, she looked at me and asked, "What will happen to us? We're new here. I don't know anyone. I have nowhere to go."

Having covered several fires, I explained that someone from the Red Cross would arrive to help them that night. I decided to stay on the scene and wait with them until that happened. Fire officials checked in with them, too, from time to time, assuring the mom and little girls (I can still see them in my mind) that they would be taken care of. My colleagues in the local TV media (including Susan Candiodi, now on cable news) arrived, and I encouraged the Mom to talk with them so people could see her story and offer help.

When the Red Cross rep arrived, I excused myself to head back to the newsroom and write the story before deadline.I told them again they would be OK, though I wasn't sure I believed it. The Mom thanked me and turned to her daughters and said "what do you say, girls?" And for the first time that night they smiled like little girls should on a night soon after Christmas and said, "Thank-you." I melted again.

Being a reporter often means seeing people at their worst, or going through the very worst of experiences. But it's also an opportunity to tell their stories, to remind others of their own vulnerability in this uncertain world, to call attention to the plight of the victims, to provide help and well, to bring people together.

I don't blame the woman in Houston for lashing out at the reporter. But by doing her job and telling the story of what is happening in Houston, the reporter is helping her and the other victims of Harvey get the help they need.

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