Thoughts on the KOMO Tragedy

As I write this, part of me is conscious of the “meh” I have for people who work overtime to try to connect themselves to every public tragedy.

So I write some of the thoughts I have on this issue with that in mind: That I didn’t know any of the people involved, and that I have no connection to yesterday’s tragic accident involving KOMO’s chopper, and that based on my own standards for what “being in the business” really means, I’m not any more. KOMO Helicopter

I want to state those things clearly since watching people try to “get close” to tragedy to somehow garner a little sympathy or validation for themselves makes me a little ill.

With that said, I share a few observations that come out of my experience.

I. Again, condolences first

I start with the focus on the victims and their families. My thoughts and prayers are with them, and that’s all that really matters.mem

II. Perspective

There are lots of double-fatal accidents every day, but few involve media people, media equipment, and are near a media property. An entire news staff felt the sting of death yesterday, and it’s important for them to remember that that very same sting is felt every day by the people they cover.

Can they take it to heart so deeply and do their jobs well? Of course not – being in the emotional space we saw yesterday isn’t healthy or sustainable. But ultimately, I think some will come to see this as and important, awful, growth experience for them – and help them relate to, and be sympathetic to the next widow, parent, or co-worker they interview in relation to another tragedy.

I make no claim here that staffers who were truly affected by this aren’t normally empathetic, but what I am saying however is that this brings the idea home – that the daily car accident victims, homicide victims, industrial accident victims and their loved ones are going through the same thing. It’s just something KOMO staffers will now carry in their back pockets – and again while awful and regrettable – it may ultimately be something that makes a good journalist – better.

III. The pack

I have sat down for interviews and visited with what feels like hundreds, but I’ll say dozens, of grieving people. They’ve lost kids, husbands, wives and siblings in all manor of accident, violence and tragedy. It’s one of the reasons I drive my wife and kids crazy with my stories of all the terrible things that can happen in life, and how they should obsess about avoiding them. Ask my wife about the “body” tours I give around town.

Despite the grim realities of the job though, I always felt that as a one reporter, one photographer crew – we could really do the job I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it: with sensitivity, respect, caution and touch. But boy, as soon as that second crew shows up, all that high minded thinking goes out the window. Like rats or pigeons, one can be ok – but three or four or five is an infestation. The dynamics of being sensitive, and doing something good, the right way – just goes out the window when the pack arrives. You don’t want it to, but it just happens.

Yesterday however, the pack also felt a great deal of empathy – and probably dealt with their brethren “in the business” the same way. That too should be something every crew tries to grow from. Even “the pack” can take something away from this. Can pooling arrangements work? Yes. Can one trusted journalist do the job 14 can? Yep. Something to consider for next time – when “other” victims are grieving the same way.

IV. Privacy

Media people covering other media people leads to lots of coverage. And what was nice about it was the fact that we really got to see “who” the victims were and why they mattered to the people who cared about them. Whenever I went to cover tragedy and speak to victims, it was always my intent to give grieving loved-ones a chance to paint a picture of their lost loved one for the public – to tell us who they were and why they mattered.

In the back of my mind I always knew the sad fact: that after the requests for privacy are long past, the attention fades away – and the only chance a victim’s family might have ever had to share their story has passed, and probably never coming back.

I always felt bad that victims never got their moment in the sun because of friends, or family’s or and employer’s completely natural tendency to recoil from “the pack.” I don’t know how to remedy that other than to say that despite the pain, if you want your loved-ones story told at the time they’re newsworthy – you have to engage. I think it is only after time that families and friends are glad they did – to see that their loved one had that public moment – that we knew “who” they were, before they disappeared from our collective minds forever.

Death’s permanence has always haunted me for that reason. Everybody moves on. The phone calls and the knocks at the door stop.

V. Relationships

I’ve already seen a little carping about what may become a criticism of the amount of coverage provided a double-fatal accident, and I have no doubt that there will be an academic analysis of this someday as a case study.

But there is something about TV news that builds particularly close bonds. I could expound at length on why I think that is, but I just want you to know that producers, assignment editors, photogs, reporters, anchors and others are very, very tight. The reporter/photographer one is tight – times two.

There are dozens of people who I haven’t talked to in years, but if they died, it would wreck me. It’s just how it is. I think police, firefighters and other professions experience the same sorts of partnership/family bonds and it’s important the public knows that it’s a big deal in good newsrooms where everybody is pulling together and overcoming obstacles and circumstances nobody else would ever get.

That helps explain why a double-fatal became a day’s wall to wall coverage – and why you saw and heard what you did on the air. We don’t criticize the fire or police services for the way they manage or share their grief, the same should hold here.

VI. News aviation

Lord I hope city policy makers or corporate overlords don’t use this as the linchpin for eliminating news aviation.. or city-located rooftop aviation either for that matter.

There are a lot of other things killing people in downtown Seattle that are far more dangerous than helicopters. But the media will suffer the same fate the “other” people they cover who come under scrutiny do – thanks to being “high profile.”

I have spent hundreds of hours in the left seat of a Jet Ranger II – and yes, we almost bit-it once thanks to a dork in a Cessna 170 who wasn’t on the radio, and wasn’t looking as he was in a banked climb up through our altitude. Fifty feet (my pilot’s estimate) of separation are generally considered near misses.

But despite all our personal anecdotes and stories from the old days of helicoptering, based on hours flown and the death rate per 100,000 – modern, well maintained and well crewed helicopters are safe as hell.

We may never have a good answer to what happened at KOMO, but the absence of good facts shouldn’t lead to bad law, bad policy, or bad decisions to back away from the use of a tool that is essential to bringing us all the news and information we rely on every day.