On the Scene: Stories about showing up when disaster strikes

This week we present two stories about being the one who is there when it happens.

Part 1: Journalist Sarah Kaplan normally covers the science beat, but when tragedy strikes in Las Vegas, she takes on an assignment unlike any she's had before.

Sarah Kaplan is a reporter at the Washington Post covering news from around the nation and across the universe.

Part 2: While covering the devastating impact of an earthquake in Thailand, journalist Maryn McKenna reflects on tragedy in her own life.

Maryn McKenna is an independent journalist who writes about public health, global health and food policy. She is a columnist for WIRED’s Ideas section and a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory University. She is the author of the 2017 bestseller BIG CHICKEN (tiled PLUCKED outside North America), SUPERBUG, and BEATING BACK THE DEVIL; her TED talk, “What do we do when antibiotics don’t work any more?”, is closing in on 1.8 million views. She lives in Atlanta.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Sarah Kaplan

So I'm a science reporter at the Washington Post. What does that mean? That means I get to spend all of my time telling the most interesting stories in the universe.

When I ask questions of my sources, their faces light up because I've just given them a chance to talk about their favorite subject. And when I publish a story, people's eyes widen because they've just learned something new and fascinating about their universe. Every day I get to feel wonder and curiosity and awe and I get to share that feeling with other people, and I'm getting paid for it. What a racket, right?

Most days, I think I have the best job in the world, but not on October 2nd 2017. The night before, a gunman opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas. It is the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history.

All day at work, this television monitor by my desk keeps flashing updated death counts from the shooting. 12 people, 25 people, 58 people. Part of me just wants to bury myself in the science story I'm writing about bird migration but another part just can't tear my eyes away from the carnage on that screen.

Sarah Kaplan shares her story with the Story Collider audience as part of a show presented in partnership with the American Geographical Union at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Washington DC in December 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Sarah Kaplan shares her story with the Story Collider audience as part of a show presented in partnership with the American Geographical Union at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Washington DC in December 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

The scope of the tragedy is so devastating that the Washington Post deploys more than a dozen journalists to Las Vegas to cover it. It's all hands on deck. So when an editor walks to my desk and asks me if I'm available to help, I say yes.

I've never covered anything like this before but I'm heartbroken and angry and I want to do something. And, as much as I love my beat, this feels like the kind of story I'm supposed to tell. I'm a journalist and this is my chance to use that to make a difference, I think.

So I arrived in Las Vegas and my assignment is to write stories about people who were injured. My editor tells me to go to the hospital and see if anyone there is there to visit someone who was hurt in the shooting.

I'm standing outside watching people walk past me and everyone looks so exhausted and stricken. Though I go up to people and ask if they want to talk to me, nobody does. One man sort of blows up at me and he says, “Can't you just leave us alone?”

After a few hours of this, I go back to my car and cry in the passenger seat, feeling really overwhelmed and really, really guilty as I replay that conversation with that man in my head. It hadn't been 36 hours since the worst moment of his life and now this total stranger wants to ask a bunch of personal and probing questions about what happened. It just feels wrong.

Most of the time when I asked my sources questions, that's how I show them that I care about them as people, but this man's message is perfectly clear. If I really cared about him, I would let him be.

By the end of the day, I still haven't found anyone who wants to talk to me. I go back to my hotel room and call my friend Jessica who is one of the best journalists I know. And I tell her, “I can't do this. I can't bring these people comfort or solace or help. All I'm doing here is making their pain worse.”

Maybe I shouldn't be here. Maybe I should go back to DC, back to those kinds of science stories I usually cover. Those stories are important. I do believe that. But they feel like lower stakes. All of the life-or-death questions about dinosaurs were answered 66 million years ago and nothing I do could cause a black hole to feel grief.

But Jessica doesn't buy it. She tells me, “You are there to bear witness. Not everyone is going to be ready to talk about what happened, but if even one person does want to then it's your job to listen. That's what you are. That's what it means to be a journalist.”

I'm not totally convinced. It feels like she's talking about someone else, someone wiser and more experienced and accomplished than I am. But her pep talk gives me just enough courage to keep trying. I try to imagine that, by bearing witness, I can make some meaning out of all the senselessness.

So the next day, not able to bring myself to go back to the hospital, I try a church where I mean a pastor who tells me about some members of her congregation who are there for the shooting. Then she introduces me to this young veteran who ran towards the shooting to help even as other people were running away.

And then he introduces me to Paige Melanson. She was at the music festival with her sister and their mom Rosemarie. The tickets had actually been a Mother's Day gift from the two girls but Rosemarie was shot in the chest and now she's at the hospital unconscious. They don't know if she's going to be okay.

It turns out that the Melansons are the people that Jessica had told me about, the ones who needed to talk and just wanted someone to listen. I end up spending all day at their house, playing with their dogs and hearing their stories.

Paige tells me about how her mom makes the best sausage and sauerkraut. Rosemarie's husband Steve tells me about visiting his wife at the hospital and seeing her in her bed and wanting to just lie down next to her and hold her, but he can't because Rosemarie is too fragile to be touched.

I wind up writing a story about all of the things I saw in their house, all of that pain and love. It goes on the front page, which is a pretty big deal for me. It doesn't happen very often when you write about black holes. But the best feedback of all is from Rosemarie's sister who tells me the story made her cry.

So I go back to DC and I keep in touch with the Melansons. I text with Steve every so often partly because I know that my editors are interested in follow-up stories about survivors, but mostly because I just need to know that they're okay.

But the updates are devastating. The bullet that hit Rosemarie punctured her stomach and it's making it almost impossible for her to eat. Five months after the shooting, she is one of the last survivors still in the hospital.

I convinced my editor to let me go back to Las Vegas to spend more time with Steve and Paige and Rosemarie. And when I get there, it feels like their lives are just as difficult as they were when I first met them, more so now because barely anyone is still paying attention.

I show up on Steve's doorstep and he invites me in and he says, “Nobody understands what this is like.”

Paige has nightmares and can't be in large crowds. Steve hasn't slept in his own bed in five months because he spends every night in the hospital with Rosemarie. He has to sleep in this really uncomfortable chair in her hospital room. And Rosemarie is still in constant pain.

Despite all that, they are some of the kindest people I've ever met. Steve teases me about my terrible favorite baseball team and asks about my family. Rosemarie gives me a hug from her hospital bed and they are unfailingly dedicated to one another. Someone is with Rosemarie almost every minute of every day.

When I finally have to say goodbye to Steve again, it's impossible not to tear up. He gives me a hug and he tells me, “Now you start to understand.”

Sarah Kaplan shares her story with the Story Collider audience as part of a show presented in partnership with the American Geographical Union at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Washington DC in December 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Sarah Kaplan shares her story with the Story Collider audience as part of a show presented in partnership with the American Geographical Union at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Washington DC in December 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

When I get back to DC, I have a really hard time living with some of the stories I heard. I feel anxious and I cry a lot, not really knowing why. And I feel guilty again for leaving Steve and Rosemarie and Paige. I feel like I wish I could do for them what I would do for my friends in that situation, bake them a casserole, volunteer to walk their dogs.

I wish I knew that my presence meant as much to them as I usually know when I talk to a scientist. I get to see their faces light up. But the rules of journalism don't allow that. I'm supposed to maintain a certain emotional distance from the stories I'm covering. I'm not supposed to get so wrapped up in people's lives that I can't be objective. And I'm definitely not supposed to do anything that would change the story I'm trying to tell.

My job, like Jessica said, is just to bear witness even though that really doesn't feel like enough. Again, I wonder if I'm able to do what my job asks of me.

Eventually, I settle into my old routine. I write about dinosaurs and black holes and exoplanets. And then one day in July I get a news alert about a very small, very important subatomic particle called a neutrino. Neutrinos are so tiny that they slip through most matter. If you hold out your hand, tens of thousands of them pass through it completely unnoticed every minute.

But this fact actually makes them really valuable tools for understanding things that happen in the dark corners of the cosmos. If we can capture them, we can learn all kinds of new things about the universe.

The neutrino in this experiment that I'm writing about left its galaxy four billion years ago when earth was just a newborn. For us to detect it, eons of evolution had to happen, intelligent primates had to evolve, that's us, and then we had to know what neutrinos are and we had to decide to go down to Antarctica and spend a decade digging into the ice to build a detector capable of capturing this one little particle.

Listening to the scientists describe it I say, “Wow, that is one lucky neutrino that had got caught.”

To my surprise, he laughs at me and he says, “The neutrino isn't lucky. We are.”

And, for reasons that maybe only makes sense in my own nerdy head, that makes me think of the Melansons. I think about how lucky I was to have met these wonderful people and how sad I would have been if their story had slipped through unnoticed. I think about everything that I witnessed in their house, all that heartache and hardship, but also courage and compassion and hope.

And I think about that moment when Steve hugged me goodbye and he said, “Now you start to understand.” I think that something meaningful did come out of it.

A few weeks after my second story about the Melansons comes out, Steve texts me to say that a reader of the Washington Post paid to have a recliner made for him and shipped to Rosemarie's hospital so that he would have somewhere to sleep when he stays with her. When Rosemarie finally came home from the hospital this October, he gave the chair to her and now she sits in it all the time.

I'm still figuring out what it means to be a good person and a good journalist and a good science journalist, but thinking about the neutrino and the Melansons has helped me think about my job a little bit differently. Both stories remind me that change takes understanding and understanding takes showing up, having patience, bearing witness. Storytelling, like science, is how we make meaning out of what we see. I don't know if it always makes a difference in the world, but it's made the difference to me.


Part 2: Maryn McKenna

On the day after Christmas, 14 years ago, an earthquake tore open the floor of the Indian Ocean. The seabed split north and south and the shock waves rippled east and west. On the nearest coasts in Indonesia and in Thailand, the waves rolled backward from the beaches, bunching up under tension like the tightening string of a bow. And then the tension broke and the waves roared forward, a 30-foot wall of water moving faster than an airliner can fly.

The waves swamped harbors and jetties and beaches. They tore up trees and crushed concrete and flung steel boats like they were driftwood. They swirled into villages and sucked away people who were fishing and sunbathing and standing in their kitchens brewing coffee to start their day. The waves roared back out to the ocean as fast as they had come and then they calmed and rolled slowly back to the land again. When they reached the scoured beaches, they brought bodies with them.

A few days later, I landed in Thailand. I was a newspaper reporter and my job was to write about epidemics and disasters. I had scooped up a photographer and we made our way to the devastated coast and we did what reporters do, we asked people where we could go to see the worst that had happened in order to make it clear to our readers and viewers how dreadful this was.

Almost everyone we met said that we should head further north to a coastal province called Phang Nga and a temple, a Buddhist monastery known as Wat Yan Yao.

Maryn McKenna shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Highland Inn and Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in January 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

Maryn McKenna shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Highland Inn and Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in January 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

In Phang Nga, the villages had been erased. All that was left of the houses were squares of tile where the kitchens had been. But the wat was far enough inland to have escaped the destruction. It was intact in a landscape where almost everything was broken and it was bright where everything else was covered in mud. You could see the golden angels on its gateway glinting from a long way away.

The abbot of the monastery had opened it as a refuge and hundreds of people had gathered there, but they hadn't come alone. They brought the dead with them. By the time we arrived, there were almost 3,000 bodies lying in the temple grounds.

There's kind of a ritual that reporters indulge in when we've been doing this for a while. If we know each other well, we've been on the road for a while, maybe we've gotten a little drunk, we talk about our first bodies. Maybe it was a car accident, maybe you followed a detective to a homicide or arranged to spend the night with some charismatic doctors in the ER. If you've been doing this for a while, it's possible that you'll see as many corpses as cops and doctors do.

I had seen more than my share already by the time I got to Thailand. I thought I was hardened. I had no idea how wrong I was. It is impossible to describe to you what 3,000 bodies smell like.

The sky was blue and the sun was blistering but the smell was like a fog that you moved through but couldn't see. It had physicality and heft. It clung to our clothing and our skin. We could smell it even after the Thai military rolled in with a convoy of refrigerated trucks and locked the bodies away.

As much as we could still smell them, we could still see them too because photographers had come and taken thousands of pictures of the bodies. Someone had found giant boards of plywood and propped them against the walls of the monastery. The photographs showed scars and hairlines, birthmarks and tattoos, anything that would help distinguish one anonymous corpse from another.

Families who had lost someone to the waves came to the wat to peruse the photographs looking for a detail that would let them identify a body and bring a loved one home. And I watched them day after day patrol up and down the rows of photographs and I was in awe of their strength because I, too, knew what it was like to confront a photograph that encapsulated the worst days of my life.

When I was five years old, my mother died of leukemia. Family history says she only knew that she was sick for about ten days. I didn't know much about her growing up. My father never spoke of her and the trauma of her sudden disappearance had taken my memories away. But what I did have was photographs. Family members slipped them to me over the years thinking that I ought to know more than I did.

I never really wanted those photographs. People forced them on me but I never looked at them very hard. I never asked questions about them. I slid them in envelopes and I stuffed them into drawers. I thought I didn't want to know the middle of the story when I already knew its tragic end. Going to the tsunami changed my mind.

Over the weeks Wat Yan Yao had become a graveyard but it became, at the same time, a place of resurrection. From thirty countries, forensic teams flew in volunteering to help to clean the bodies and measure them, to document their teeth and their fingerprints and the length of their bones.

Maryn McKenna shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Highland Inn and Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in January 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

Maryn McKenna shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Highland Inn and Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in January 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

And random volunteers showed up as well: a Canadian who had been backpacking in Cambodia, a movie extra from New Zealand, a North Carolina fireman. They had never communicated before they arrived at the temple but they all had the same intention. Someone who spoke English wrote it down for them, found a long piece of paper and tacked it up above the gates of the wat and scrawled on it in big letters, “We will bring them home.”

Outside the gates, it got busier as well. The families who had come to look at the photographs didn't leave afterward. They came back again and again, day after day. And after a while, they brought their own photographs to add to the boards of plywood. A kid's solemn school photo, honeymooners hugging in the surf, an ID card from an office, girlfriends hoisting cocktails on a beach. On each of the photographs on the back, in the handwriting of a dozen countries, they wrote names and towns, ages and cellphone numbers hoping that someone would make a connection.

Side by side with the inexorable proof of death, they reconstructed the stories of lives. One of the volunteers had been a graphic designer in California and before he got on the plane, he loaded his laptop up with powerful photo editing programs. He took as his job to work on the photos that had been taken of the dead to improve them, reshaping faces, erasing lacerations, putting back the color and skin and hair.

One day, he was working on a picture that looked like it had been a young girl and another volunteer was watching over his shoulder. And after a moment, she stopped him. She said, “I know her. I've seen her face.”

The volunteer went running out the gates of the wat to the boards where the families had added their photographs. She came running back with a picture of a young girl with a pointed chin and a wistful smile. On the back there was a name and an age and a cellphone number. And she held the photo up against the laptop screen. They matched.

The girl's body was in the coolers. Her family could bring her home.

After I got back from Thailand, I took out the photos that I had never wanted to look at. I had watched the survivors of the tsunami confront the evidence of the worst thing they could have imagined. I thought it would honor their courage for me to do the same.

In the photos that I had never wanted to receive, I saw my mother as a healthy, young woman studying, smiling, getting dressed up to go to church with my grandparents. In some of them, she was holding hands with my father. In some of them, she was holding me.

I began to forgive my relatives for pressing those photos on me when I had not wanted them and I began to understand the message they wanted me to hear, the message I had heard from the tsunami survivors that when we retrieve the story of life, we can defy the finality of death.

Now, when I think of my mother, I think as well of the volunteers in the temple who ran from all around the world to help. I think of the families knowing how their loved ones’ stories ended, insisting that the end was not all there was to tell.

It has been 14 years and I have never forgotten their lessons. When we are shattered, someone will come to gather the pieces for us. When tragedy takes our stories, someone will arrive to tell them back to us. And when we are most lost, people will run to find us and they will bring us home. Thank you.