In covering a disaster, The Herald relies on trust to get it right
On Monday, the staff will unpack and resume work from a new office at 41st Street and Colby Avenue.
During the past week — with reporters and editors crowded around portable tables while their desks were being moved across town — the staff found itself covering a disaster that demanded long hours of work under trying circumstances.
Herald reporter Chris Winters and photographer Annie Mulligan were in the north county on Saturday morning, covering a Knowledge Bowl competition at Arlington High School, a typical weekend assignment. Winters headed back to Everett, but Mulligan remained, looking for the right photo to frame the story.
"There was a fair amount of chatter" on radio scanners when Winters got back to the newsroom. "Something was happening somewhere," he said. Scanners and Twitter reports from the Washington State Patrol alerted him to a mudslide on Highway 530 near the town of Oso. It was obvious there were injuries, and the landslide was more massive than routine mudslides that often block train tracks during rainy months.
The coverage began.
Winters called City Editor Robert Frank and reporter Rikki King. A brief story was put up on the HeraldNet website and Winters headed for the slide.
Mulligan was still in Arlington when the Herald's chief photographer and her husband, Mark Mulligan, called to tell her of the mudslide. She thought about waiting for more details. She wasn't prepared to cover more than the Knowledge Bowl. She didn't have a laptop to transmit photos. She didn't have extra memory cards for her camera. And she didn't have a jacket.
Her editor called back a minute later.
"Mark said: 'This is a big deal and you need to go,'" she said. "He said, 'Head up 530 and keep driving until you can't go any further.'"
Winters hit a roadblock on Highway 530 and was directed to a command post. Authorities were concerned because the slide had blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. The river was backing behind the slide, threatening a flash flood if it broke through.
Winters gathered information and then relayed the news to the Herald's makeshift newsroom where Frank and King began writing the first stories for HeraldNet and the Sunday Herald.
Details began coming in, Winters said: Stories of a 6-month-old boy pulled from debris alive but badly injured; first responders struggling with the quicksand-like mud; fears that the danger of more slides and a flash flood hadn't passed.
Residents and family members of Oso residents gathered at a fire station, alongside emergency workers, officials and news reporters and photographers. Shock and grief were evident already.
Winters recalled seeing an Oso firefighter, still in his turnout gear, grieving the death of his wife and loss of his home.
Annie Mulligan had been turned back short of the slide and settled into work at the command post.
Photographing victims and first responders takes balance, she said. A journalist must document what has happened but not intrude on victims and their grief.
"I hung back," Mulligan said. As people learned — or in many cases, couldn't learn — the fate of loved ones, Mulligan gave them space.
"I wouldn't follow," she said.
Firefighters and first responders typically are more accustomed to journalists.
"They were very kind. They would talk to us, offer us food. They understood what we were trying to do," she said.
Fellow Herald photographer Genna Martin arrived, delivering a laptop to Mulligan and then starting her own work Saturday and Sunday.
Martin had better luck at roadblocks and, at least at one checkpoint, an emergency worker knew that Martin was one of the photographers who had covered Darrington High School basketball games. That sort of experience and familiarity can provide a level of comfort and trust.
"There was one very helpful (public information officer) who told me, 'Tell Rikki (King), I was nice to you.'" Martin said. " It helps that the community knows The Herald."
Martin also connected with a public information officer who was escorting the Arlington mayor, two state representatives and a county commissioner who were inspecting the damage.
"He took me up the hill that looked out over the slide area," she said.
The devastation came into focus. She talked to one resident who had found the remains of his best friend's home. Martin watched neighbors sorting through the wreckage and pulling out something to keep. Others were looking for the neighbors themselves who had not been accounted for.
"It looked like a tornado came through. One house was just splinters," Martin said.
A photo used Monday on Page A3 was Martin's: an Oso resident, his back turned to the camera, walking through mud, tangles of roots and debris, late Sunday near sunset.
"He was just wandering around dumbstruck," she said. "There was just so much wreckage, and the environment was unrecognizable. It's now this muddy flood plain that used to be grass and houses along the river."
A week after the Oso landslide, the work of Herald reporters, photographers and editors continues. At least 18 people are dead, and 30 are missing.
The Herald's reporting in the weeks ahead will require the trust of the community to provide information and access.
"We've been given the opportunity to get it right," King said. "People recognize your face and know why you're here and that this is our home, too."
Jon Bauer: 425-339-3425; email@example.com.
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