Saddest stories also can be the most important

Posted3/15/2015 1:00 AM

If there is one story I'd hope we'd never have to cover again, it's this: The deaths of children. Murder is an incomprehensible reason, but it can be just as unbearable for a parent to lose a child to cancer.

Or a traffic accident.


Six teens from Aurora Catholic High School were headed to Rochelle last week to watch their school in a playoff basketball game. On a rural stretch of Route 38 and in a dense fog, the 17-year-old driver likely didn't see the red light and crashed into a semitrailer truck turning into the intersection. Two 16-year-olds, Ally Bradford and Seth Egger, were killed, and the driver was hospitalized.

The next day, reporter Marie Wilson and photographer Mark Black were dispatched to the high school to see what we could learn about the accident, about Ally and Seth, whose names had not yet been released. Their morning visit didn't yield much, so Marie bided her time at the Eola Road Library in Aurora to be nearby when school let out. It was there that she encountered someone she'd met working a previous story. The woman knew of the mother of one of the students who survived the crash. That led to an interview with Liam Doyle and members of his family. Liam was in the third row of seats in the SUV, which crumpled upon impact with the truck; he couldn't see any of his friends, and was hoping against hope they had survived. Two didn't, and the next day, Liam talked to a priest, who gave some advice that Liam took to heart.

"Father told me to try to be confident and goofy and try to carry on (the memory of) Seth and Ally through that," he said. "It won't be the same without Ally laughing in the hall all the time and Seth messing with people."

Poignant moments like that are a main reason we journalists do what we do. It's not always appreciated when we contact a person who has lost a loved one. But the people Marie talked to the day after the tragedy, including Ally's mom, seemed ready to share what made their child or their friend so special. Yes, it's soon and nerves are raw, but isn't this better than a cold, clinical story about a traffic accident? Marie put it well: "As a human being, it feels so intrusive to butt into people's lives at the worst possible moment -- when they've lost a loved one. Yet as a reporter, I know how important it is to tell people's stories and to put a human face behind the tragedy."

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There's another reason we try to flesh out every last detail in these types of tragedies: It is a sad truth that the most common cause of death among teens is a traffic accident. And sometimes, youthful negligence plays a role. We have to check that out. It's the reason, too, Illinois has rigid laws on how many teen passengers a person 17 and younger can have in his vehicle. If he's been driving for less than a year, with a few exceptions, it's only one.

We hadn't confirmed this at the time of the accident, but I can gratefully report the driver, Jared Friedrich, had his license for more than a year, and was abiding by the law when he drove five passengers to that basketball game in Rochelle. There's other due diligence we need to finish, such as checking in with state police on the crash, but no matter the circumstances, our main goal is to focus, indeed, celebrate, the lives of the victims. There's likely no better example of that than what Dianna Bradford said about her daughter, Ally.

"She was a loving person who loved to have fun, loved to make people smile," she said. "I love everything about her."

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