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Covering tragedies are no fun

Posted: March 22, 2013 4:18 p.m.
Updated: March 25, 2013 5:00 a.m.

I won an award Saturday: first place for Spot News (breaking news in layman’s terms) for  a story about the recovery of two North Carolina teenage boys’ bodies from a creek-fed pond near the Wateree River.

I’m glad some judges from another state (the S.C. Press Association swaps judges with other states’ members) thought my reporting and writing of that story was superior to those by other South Carolina community newspaper writers. But the win is bittersweet; I don’t like writing these kinds of stories. It’s unpleasant to know that I won an award because two teenage boys died.

As I said in today’s front page story about Saturday’s awards, however, it was a story I could not ignore. The two boys -- Jake Ziegler, 18, and Ray Pierce, 17, of Sherill’s Ford, N.C. -- had been missing for 15 days. Their friends and family knew they had been on their way to Myrtle Beach during the early morning hours of Oct. 13, 2012. Somewhere, sometime during that drive, Ziegler and Pierce disappeared.

What no one knew until the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2012, was that they had driven off the left side of I-20 eastbound and into a pond fed by Buck Creek about 1,500 feet from the Wateree River.

I had followed, somewhat, the search for the two boys. I never dreamed, however, that there would be a Kershaw County connection since there are other ways to get to the beach than through our part of the state.

When most people hear the term “breaking news,” they picture a reporter hearing about a bank robbery, rushing to the scene, taking notes and photographs, rushing back to the newspaper and banging out a story for the morning edition.

That does happen here at the Chronicle-Independent. As a thrice-weekly publication, however, sometimes you don’t read what we consider spot news for an extra couple of days.

I started hearing rumors that emergency crews were congregating on an I-20 bridge somewhere on the Lugoff side of the Wateree River. I made a few phone calls and got enough specifics to head to the C-I office, pick up pen, pad and camera, and head out. In talking with officials, I realized my best bet was to head down to Lugoff and get on the interstate there back toward Camden. My hunch proved correct. Traffic was backed up, of course, but I was able to make my way close to the bridge and parked on the side of the interstate behind a line of trooper, deputy and other law enforcement vehicles.

I then hiked the quarter-mile or so to the bridge itself with no real idea of what to expect. Sundown came a short time later. It turned out that the recovery effort was happening between the two bridges that serve the east- and westbound lanes of I-20. I took notes of what I could see, took pictures with both my camera and iPhone (for our Facebook page), made a few phone calls to officials I could see but couldn’t get to, and waited.

That’s what happens during a lot of “breaking” stories: you wait. It took several hours to pull the boys’ Pontiac G6 out of the water.

After a while, a trooper relayed a request asking me to move further west, away from the scene, to where other media had gathered. I understood. They were ready to bring up Ziegler and Pierce’s bodies. They didn’t want me, even inadvertently, taking pictures of them. I didn’t need to be right there -- didn’t want to be, really -- for that, and did as asked.

A volunteer missing persons group had found a piece of the car around 4 p.m. It was after 7 p.m. when the bodies were recovered. It was around 8 p.m. when law enforcement officially told us it was Ziegler and Pierce.

In the meantime, troopers and Coroner Johnny Fellers had to go to the scene of another tragedy: a fatal multi-car accident on the westbound side of I-20 at the Camden accident just a mile away. A 21-year-old man from Conway was dead.

Trust me, it is no fun to write words like those.

Still, I had a job to do, and I did it. The fact that Monday’s paper was already being printed meant I could take my time writing a fuller story about the circumstances leading up to that October evening’s recovery effort for that Wednesday.

I spoke with a representative of the volunteer group that had found the car. I spoke with officials from Catawba County, N.C., and Lancaster County here in South Carolina (one of the boys’ text messages had pinged off a tower there). I got back in touch with the S.C. Highway Patrol and with our sheriff’s office.

If there is a “good” feeling to take away from the experience it is that I work for a newspaper where, most of the time, I can take my time with even the most breaking of stories. This way, I was able to tell a fuller story, a better story.

The last time I won first place in the Spot News category was in 2006 when I reported on a kidnapped Lugoff teenage girl’s rescue and the capture of her kidnapper. That was also a very tough story to report; luckily it had a much happier ending.

Happy or tragic, the news is the news and all of us here at the C-I work very hard to report that news as fully and as accurately as we can. It’s why we do what we do -- not for ourselves, but for you. We don’t write stories with the expectation of winning awards, although that is nice. We write them because Kershaw County’s stories need to be told.

It is a privilege and an honor to do so for you every three days. Awards are just icing on the cake, even when that icing is bittersweet.


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