Talk with the Editor: Flight 191 wasn't just a story

Updated 10/14/2011 12:58 PM

I don't think the full weight of the tragic crash of American Airlines Flight 191 hit me until the next day.

Back then, the airlines didn't immediately renumber ill-fated routes after a crash the way they seem to do now, and I was a young reporter sent out to talk to passengers who were getting ready to board the next Flight 191 to Los Angeles. Were they apprehensive? Did they consider rescheduling? That sort of thing.

Airport security wasn't what it's like today. I used a windshield "Press" card to park alongside the terminal. It was no trouble to walk to the gate of a departing plane. People saw their friends and loved ones off that way all the time.

I don't remember for certain that it was the next day. That's how it happened according to my memory, but memories play tricks, and the next day was a Saturday. It's possible the flight I remember was on Monday, the first weekday after the tragedy. I also don't remember what people said. My guess is they said the predictable things. Some people were stoic; some people were nervous.

What I remember vividly, however, was looking out the gate window at the DC-10 pulled up next to the passenger tunnel. It was huge, as DC-10s are. I kept thinking, "Friday's flight was filled with people." I kept thinking, "I can't believe that that many people could be gone in an instant."

Our front page today carried a story describing the ceremony that is to take place Saturday in Des Plaines unveiling a memorial for all those people. There'll be more coverage online Saturday afternoon and in the print editions on Sunday.

My reaction is, what took them so long?

I say that as just a someone. Not as the editor, although the paper editorialized a while back that a memorial should be built. No, I say that just as a suburbanite who was here that day -- as one of the hundreds of thousands who were touched by the tragedy even if we had no personal connection to any of the victims.

People ask sometimes, what is it like covering a big story? What was it like covering a big tragedy like that?

Well, you are working, and there's no denying that there's an adrenaline rush on the big story. There definitely was pride that night and the next day that the newsroom had come together to meet the challenge that big stories provide.

How do we react? In the movies, reporters often are shown covering stories like these with great insensitivity and rude assertiveness, with no feeling for the heartache they're reporting.

Let me just say this about that: I've been in the news business for more than three decades and have known a lot of journalists, both at the Daily Herald and elsewhere. I've never known any to be insensitive in the face of tragedy. (OK, I take that back; there was one. I did come across one who didn't seem to have that basic humanity.)

But ultimately, we are people like all people, and because of that, we're emotionally affected by the story we're covering just like anybody else.

And when you talk to survivors, people who've lost loved ones, your heart goes out to them just like anyone else's heart would go out to them.

There are some stories you take home with you. There are some stories that make it impossible to sleep. There are some stories that remind you to kiss your wife and kids.

Flight 191 was one of those stories.

Thank you for your participation on the column this week. I hope you have a nice weekend.

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