Sunday, June 21, 2009

My first week at the Flint Journal was nearly my last

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s a night police beat shift at the Flint Journal could be an adventure. Almost 20 years ago tonight was one of the most interesting of my career.

I had barely warmed the seat at my desk in June 1989 when my first eventful Friday night police shift arrived. In fact, it was my very first Friday night police reporting shift at the Journal.
In those days a Friday night shift began at 6 p.m. and went until 2 a.m. We could get breaking news into the paper until about 1:45 a.m. The presses rolled about 2 a.m. Usually there was one reporter that worked the 3-11 shift and then I was by myself until 2 a.m.

On this first Friday, there was a serious car accident at Thompson Road and U.S. 23 about 5:30 p.m. I learned about the accident with my first run through the police phone list that night. A young child had been critically injured and complicating the injury was the fact the family was the member of a religious group that did not believe in blood transfusions, which the child desperately needed.

There was a large religious convention at the Pontiac Silverdome for this group and the family was on their way back to a hotel for the night when the accident happened. I think it was the Jehovah's Witnesses, but can't remember for sure.

As a new Journal reporter, I had very few sources in the police department or hospital, but I did the best I could to start piecing together a wrenching story on the fight to get this child treatment.

From the police I learned that a judge was being summoned from home to hold an emergency session to issue an order directing the hospital to provide a blood transfusion. I wanted to talk to the parents at the hospital, but Hurley Hospital on a Friday night, as I learned very quickly that night, could be a wild and crazy place.

Hurley is a place that in the late 1980s the Army assigned its surgeons to for practice in dealing with gunshot wounds. Gunshot wounds were a nightly occurrence.

What happened next was a factor of my previous experiences at a Pontiac hospital where I had spent hours in my 5-year stint with the Oakland Press dealing with similar emergency trauma situations. In those days I developed a great relationship with one of the greatest ER doctors I ever met. The doctor, who died a few years ago in a traffic accident, was a great resource and help to police officers and reporters in the days before HIPPA privacy laws.

One night in Pontiac, I was covering the homicide of a young man and responded to the hospital late at night to see what I could find and add to the story there. I ran into Dr. A and we chatted for a moment and I asked him how many times the victim had been shot.

"I don't know, but let's find out," he said. I followed him into a room, filled with equipment, and the man was laying there with tubes coming out of him and the doctor, with me looking on, counted the bullet homes, making sure he was only counting entrance wounds. I honestly can't remember today how many holes there were, but it was a lot.

So in relating my Hurley story it is important that you understand that my previous hospital experience was one of wide open access.

So back to June 1989 and Hurley Hospital.

After I had confirmed the court order requiring treatment I headed to Hurley to find the family, if I could. These are always difficult stories because you are intruding on people at a very traumatic time.

When people get upset with reporters for this intrusions, I simply ask folks that if something like this was happening to you or your family would you at least want the opportunity to weigh in with your version of the events, or not. In trying to tell both sides of a story, you should at least try to reach both sides. People are often mad at reporters for NOT calling them to verify or get their side of an issue or event when they could have.

Once at the hospital, I entered the emergency room waiting area and was asking folks there if they were friends or family of the injured child. A hospital security guard came over and asked me who I was looking for, and I told him.

I made the assumption he knew who I was because I was carrying a notebook and wearing Flint Journal identification. This is where the confusion began.

The security guard said the family is in another room and told me to follow him. We walked down a hall and into a room where a doctor was talking to the family and when I entered, the doctor asked who I was and I identified myself as a reporter from the Journal. Before I could explain what I wanted, all heck broke loose.

"Get him out of here," the doctor yelled at the security guard. The next thing I knew I was getting the bum's rush by several security guards who made sure I not only left the emergency room, but that I drove off the property.

Whether the family ever knew what I was doing or what my intentions were, I'll never know. They were from out-of-state and I was never able to contact them. Sadly, the child died that night even with the treatment.

Back at the office, I finished up the story about the dramatic events of the accident and court hearing (we didn't learn about the death the next day, as I recall) and filed my story. All this in my first four hours of my first Friday night shift in Flint.

About 11 p.m., the scanner blurted out with a call of a possible dead woman in a lot on the north side of Flint. Checking the location on a large newsroom map, I headed up Martin Luther King Drive to the location of the lot.

I'm not even close to the location of the dead woman when I can't help but notice two men about a block north of me, one on the west side of MLK and the other on the east side of MLK near a convenience store near Ninth Avenue exchanging shots at each other across the street.

I stopped my car, did a U-turn and headed the other direction. In those days we had a car phone (which came in its own suitcase) and I drove a safe distance and called police to tell them about the two men shooting at each other.

Then taking an alternate route, I proceeded to the location of where the dead woman was supposed to be. What my memory can not seem to recall is whether the call of the dead woman was unfounded or if that was another story I wrote that night. I vaguely recall that there was a homicide.

The sight of two men exchanging shots (nothing ever came of that either) had completely dominated my memory of that night. I do remember arriving at the scene where the dead woman was supposed to be and telling a couple police officers about what I witnessed at Ninth and King.

It was the reaction of those officers that let me know I was in a special place. They barely nodded and just shrugged over my report.

When I returned to work on Monday afternoon, the editor called me into his office. He had been called by the public relations department of Hurley Hospital with a complaint about my 'trespassing' on hospital grounds and ambushing the family.

As my career flashed before my eyes, the editor listened to my version of events, my history of contacts at the Pontiac hospital and then told me I did nothing wrong and that he would take care of it. I let out a big sign and it was the last I heard of the hospital complaint.

Later that day I also was cornered by the religion writer who complained that I had poached on her beat and that I should have called her with the information and let her do the story. I explained, successfully I think, that it was only my first week and I really wasn't aware of who covered what. Besides, I didn't think anyone would have wanted to be called in on a Friday night.

So at the end of my first week I had nearly gotten arrested for trespassing at a local hospital, had a serious complaint filed against me for my reporting and witnessed a shooting. What had I gotten myself into?

Another memorable Friday night recollection was hearing some scanner traffic right at 2 a.m. as I was preparing to leave work on a Saturday morning. The report was of a roll over accident at First and Grand Traverse.

I told the night editor that I would check on it on my way home and would call him with some notes to leave for the Saturday reporter as it was past deadline for the Saturday paper.

The accident scene was literally a 30-second drive from the Flint Journal and when I got there I was the first one there, even before the police. The person who called it in (possibly a drunk driver who didn't want to be around when police arrived) had driven off.

Rolled over on its top, there was steam coming from under the hood. Two men were trapped in the car and another man had been thrown from the vehicle. I went over to the man who was outside the car and put my hand on his back, he was barely breathing. It must have been cold because I remember seeing his faint breath.

Until police arrived, I just kept my hand on his back so perhaps he would at least know someone was with him. One of the men in the car was already dead I later found out, the man I stayed with died at the hospital a short time later. The other man presumably recovered.

On my way home, I called the night editor, related the details as I knew them (leaving out the part about me putting my hand on the man's back) so that the Saturday reporter could follow up the next day.


pam said...

We do enjoy the wild jobs don't we?

Dave Forsmark said...

Hey, there was an ISSUE here, it's not like you were one of those people sticking a mic in a grieving parent's face after an illness or random accident and saying, "Hey, tell us how you feel about your kid dying."
Great story.

Jim of L-Town said...

I'm proud to say, I'm never posed that statement to any grieving parent. Not a big fan of the gratitutous death reaction story. At least not the same day of the event. Editors often push for that, but I've seen those stories work much better if you give people 24 hours to reflect and grieve.

You might be surprised at how many people want to talk about loved ones following tragedies. But it must be done sensitively and with actual empathy or sympathy.

Glad you stopped by Dave.

Dave Forsmark said...

Reminds me of the couple of times I went on 3rd shit ride alongs with Flint cops. Couldn't answer every "shots fired" report, it was just impossible. There had to be either a second report which indicated an ongoing gun battle, or someone had to be hit before there was police response. Otherwise, they would have been chasing nothings all night. Even then there were too few cars, imagine what it's like now.

Jim of L-Town said...

Dave had an unfortunate, if not appropriate, typo in the second line of his post.

I've actually heard 3rd shift referred to as it was in Dave's post.

I'm letting this slide because I'm sure it was a typo. Giggle now, and forever hold your peace.

Dave Forsmark said...

Yikes! Typo and eyes aren't getting any younger.