I heard the call for mutual aid go out over the police scanner shortly after it happened. It was probably about 5:20 p.m. on Feb. 10. I didn’t hear a clear location. I heard a cross street. But I heard the call.
“Gun shot wound.”
“It” I would later find out would become national news. The shootings this week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina have taken over every aspect of my life.
When we learned that the shooting took place in an area of Chapel Hill where grad student lived we prepared for the worst – and the worst became our reality.
Three young, bright students were shot and killed. All of them would have been my peers if I was still in school. I’m 23-years-old. The victims were 23, 21 and 19. You can’t prepare to cover the brutal murders of people your own age.
I remember when I found out they were students. It was 2:45 a.m. on Feb. 11. I don’t know what woke me up. My editor told me it was my “journalistic instinct.” I think it was just a nightmare that shook me awake.
I saw the email from the Chapel Hill Police Department. I knew then and there that I shouldn’t go back to bed. I spent 15 minutes drafting tweets while still in bed – I didn’t even take the time to put my glasses on or turn on the lights. I stayed still for a bit after all the tweets went out. Then I realized, this isn’t something you can simply “go back to bed” after. So from 2:45 to 5:30 a.m. I wrote. I researched. I was a reporter.
I went to work. My editors were surprised by the 4:40 a.m. breaking news alerts I sent out. We made plans for what needed to happen for the rest of the day. I wanted to do everything – every press conference, every interview, every vigil. I wanted to do it on my own, but one reporter can’t do it all.
The court reporter filled in for me in Durham so I could spend my day covering reports from Chapel Hill. Then our Orange County reporter filled in at night to attend the first public vigil. I was so thankful that the other reporters were willing and able to help cover the other angles I couldn’t get from where I was. Sometimes reporters get caught up in creating their own copy that they forget that putting a newspaper together isn’t a one person gig – it’s a collective effort.
I wrote almost 50 inches of copy for the overview story. When I got home, I emailed a journalism professor that was influential in my education. I just wanted to thank her for everything she did, and everything Drake University did for me.
She reminded me to take some time for myself. I often forget that I’m human, that I’m not just a reporter. My friends continually ask me how I deal with such tragic and horrific events like the shootings in Chapel Hill. The answer is usually the same. Some form of “I don’t know, I just kind of think of it as work.” You have to. You have to think of it as work, but at some point during it all, you realize the lives you’re writing about were real. They were people just like you. Hell, they were me. They were young. They were bright. They had futures in front of them.
That moment of hit me on Feb. 13 as I read the search warrants for the apartments involved in shooting. I read the words “no signs of life” and “bleeding from the head.”
I wanted to cry. There are very few times where I want to cry when I’m covering a story. Even when I talk to family members, I can usually keep it together, but it never fails that official documents get to me.
You get a lot of advice in J-School. Professors talk about their experiences, they bring speakers in to tell you war stories. But at the end of your four years, the only thing that can prepare you for anything is your own experiences.
That reflection will come later. But for now, the over 50 hours work show what I’ve done. I’m proud of the work The Herald-Sun did, and I’m so happy to say that I was part of it.