Seeking answers for a senseless tragedy

On Aug. 30, while a woman I didn’t know was struggling for her life, I stood 50 feet away in a biting downpour, peering through a soaked camera lens, and took pictures.

I am still trying to understand how I should feel about that.

Her name was Betty Ann Richardson. Like most of us that evening, she was merely trying to drive home through the sudden chaos caused by Tropical Storm Gaston. But unlike the rest of us, she never made it.

Journalists are curious and wide-eyed by nature.

Sometimes, we wish we were not.

We enter this profession because we like to write, take pictures, educate others and tell stories untold. Some of us thrive under the never-ending rush of constant deadlines, others under the adrenaline of danger, intrigue and shock. Others prefer the friendlier pace of covering youth baseball games, county government and autumn parades.

I believe each form of journalism, when performed responsibly, is equally important.

As the Henrico Citizen celebrates its third anniversary this month, I am able to reflect on the events that have caused each form to find its way into our pages during the past three years.

Our first issue was published nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks, at a time when much seemed lost in a surreal haze and confusion. Writing about the opening of a new county library and volunteers who built homes for the poor didn’t seem terribly important at the time, but we did it anyway. Today, I am glad we did.

The following autumn, a similar eerie feeling swept through the community while police sought desperately to catch snipers who were terrorizing our region. One October morning, I found myself standing across the street from what would temporarily become the most famous gas station in the world – in the heart of Henrico – after police narrowly missed capturing the suspects at a pay phone there.

And last year at this time, we all experienced the devastation of Hurricane Isabel – which has left lingering effects for some even now.

These are not the events we hoped to cover when the Citizen began publishing three years ago. But in journalism, we don’t always have a choice.

Sometimes, quietly important community news swirls together in sudden and unforeseen ways with a national manhunt or a natural disaster. I’d like to say that experience eventually dictates how we react to these strange combinations – as humans and as journalists.

But after Tropical Storm Gaston left me with a memory I won’t soon shake, I don’t know that I’m any closer to being comfortable with my reactions as either one.

While Gaston was dumping more than a foot of rain on metro Richmond, my staff and I were toiling away on a deadline in our office, which sits directly across from Bryan Park in Lakeside. I thought little of the rain – other than to marvel at how much of it there seemed to be – until our intern phoned on her way home to warn us that standing water on Lakeside Avenue was blocking the flow of traffic at about 5:30 p.m.

Later, when our managing editor and I ventured out in the downpour after flooding knocked our power out, we saw a frightening sight: Richardson’s van, caught in the rising water, had stalled on Lakeside Avenue and was sitting on a sidewalk, angled nearly perpendicular to the road. It sat only about 50 feet from our office building.

As several Henrico firefighters closed the area to onlookers, others anchored a ladder truck in place with sturdy reinforcement legs. I rushed to my car to load a roll of film into my camera.

At the time, I believed I would be capturing a dramatic rescue on film. It would be the sort of moment that could provide inspiration to readers and show the lengths to which rescuers will go to protect the public. From such a devastating storm, I thought, it would be comforting to steal something positive and reassuring.

Rain slapped against my face one sheet at a time while I snapped pictures through a lens blurry with streaks of water.

In between shots, I watched a team of firefighters brave rapids that in some spots must have been 8 to 10 feet deep. They extended their truck’s ladder parallel over the raging waters and climbed its length in an attempt to secure the van and pull it from danger. Several entered the rushing water when it became clear they couldn’t reach Richardson otherwise.

One was set to plow through the rapids in a final attempt to pull her from the van when the water overcame the vehicle and pulled it over the embankment and into Jordan’s Branch below. It also took Richardson’s life.

The first rule of covering an emergency is to be a human being first and a journalist second. Carrying a notepad or camera doesn’t give someone the right to opt out of his responsibilities to a fellow human in need.

At the time, and I suppose in retrospect, I know there was nothing I could have done to save Betty Ann Richardson. She became Henrico’s only fatality in the terrible storm. Even the Henrico firefighters who tried desperately – valiantly – to do so, and who went far beyond reasonable expectations in their attempts, were sadly unsuccessful.

But in light of the tragic result, I have wondered quietly about what right I had to document such an event – even one that occurred directly in front of my office, and even though documenting events is my job.

In one sense, I don’t regret my presence that night, if only to recount here the lengths to which the firefighters went in a desperate attempt to save another life. Already that hour they had plucked two teens from a tree across the street in Bryan Park, after an ill-fated tubing trip, and they had saved another driver whose car stalled in the same spot as Richardson’s minutes earlier. All three surely would have faced great peril, if not certain death, otherwise.

In another sense, I have experienced strong feelings of guilt about my actions, or perhaps lack thereof, that night.

Most of all, I feel a terrible sadness for Richardson’s family, friends and coworkers. I’ve had difficulty reasoning the manner in which everything happened so quickly and resolutely that night – how a road I travel four times a day or more could suddenly become submerged under 10 feet of currents, yet clear enough three hours later for me to drive home. Why someone who was no different from the rest of us met a different fate.

Seeking answers where none exist is not easy, now or ever. During the past few weeks, I’ve listened to advice and thoughts from friends and colleagues who are journalists and others who are not. In questioning myself repeatedly, I’ve contemplated the many things I could have done that night instead of what I did.

I wonder if I could have helped more and observed less. I wonder whether I should even have been there, clicking a camera in a thunderous downpour, at all.

The roll of film I took that night now sits undeveloped on my desk. I haven’t the desire, nor the courage, to move it. Whatever images I captured inside it already exist in much greater detail inside my mind, and that is where they should remain.

When the water from Youngs Pond began rushing across Lakeside Avenue early that evening, before any lives had been threatened by its steady rise, our managing editor rushed up the stairs to my office, her feet soaked, to tell me about the surreal sight of a river flowing 50 feet from our front door.

“You have to come see this,” she said. “You’ll never see anything like it again.”

I hope she was right.

And I wish I never had.
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The Shops at Willow Lawn’s community event Mommy & Me and Daddy Too continues with Chris Campbell: Music for Kids from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Enjoy a morning out with live entertainment, crafts, games and programs designed to enhance parent's interaction with their children. The program continues on the second Wednesday of each month. Admission is free. For details, visit http://www.willowlawn.com. Full text

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