Monday’s horrible tragedy in which a woman and four little kids were killed was a shock to everyone involved – neighbors, firefighters, cops and media members alike.
It’s hard to imagine what went through the minds of the firefighters who came upon the victims in the smoky house on West 10th Street or through their minds as they performed CPR in a desperate effort to save them. They probably didn’t have much time to think until it was over and the victims had been carried off to local hospitals.
If anyone beyond the emergency responders had any sense of the grim reality of what was unfolding on that front yard, it was members of the media, particularly those whose job it was to chronicle the news through images. Ryan Pfeil’s column candidly tells the shock he felt as the bodies came out, the anger he felt when he heard they were murdered and the stunned feeling he had later as he tried to assimilate what he had witnessed.
There are no more powerful images from that 10th Street front yard than the photos shot by Mail Tribune Photo Editor Bob Pennell. Pennell had driven to the scene when word came over the scanner of a house fire. He was talking with a police officer as they watched trails of smoke drift from the house and both he and the officer were probably thinking it wasn’t going to amount to much. Then a firefighter came out the door with a limp child in his arms and chaos broke out. Standing across the street with a telephoto lens, Pennell had a shockingly close view of the brutal mayhem.
Pennell’s photos are stunning, tragic, heroic, horrific. The pandemonium of the scene is captured in many of those shots, showing dozens of firefighters and police officers giving CPR to six people on the small front lawn. Plain-clothed officers wearing short-sleeved shirts and khaki pants are down on their knees trying to breathe life into the children and their parents.
It is hard to look at some of the images and we’ve received a few complaints from readers – of print and online content — who were unhappy that we chose to run them.
Believe me, there were some tough choices made. We ultimately decided that we would run photos that showed the responders working on the children but only if the children’s faces were covered, or at least not plainly visible, and most of their bodies were not visible. Some who objected chose to focus on photos that showed the top of a child’s head or a portion of a face, but we really tried to put the focus on the rescue workers — and I think the compassion and desperate energy they put into their work came through vividly in many of the shots.
There are many more photos that we chose not to publish — photos of the children being carried from the house, photos of rescue workers performing CPR on children whose faces were clearly visible, pictures of the children with their arms and legs spread out on the grass as people struggled to save them.
One photo in Tuesday’s paper — an image of a plain-clothed police officer giving a child CPR — was debated at length. Originally, a slightly different version was scheduled to run on Page 1A. But as we looked at it, we decided to back off to a different frame that showed less of the child and that was not as tightly focused on the officer and child. We also decided to run it on Page 3A instead of Page 1A.
I agonized over that decision, because there was so much power, hope and compassion in that photo. We ran it, but we ran it inside rather on the front page. We sent out some of the photos we didn’t run, at the request of The Associated Press for distribution to other papers. For all we know, they may have run those photos on their front pages. But the shots seemed too close to home and too much for a community still trying to come to grips with the raw emotions of the tragedy.
Did we make the right decision on the photos? Based on the comments we’ve heard — and haven’t heard — I’d say we probably were at least close. I know there are readers who disagree and believe we should not have run anything showing a child being worked on. There probably are others who think we should have shown more.
I spoke with a fellow editor, who offered a bit of wisdom that stuck with me: “It’s an awful situation. There are no right or wrong answers, only the answer you come up with.”