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Monday, May 11, 2009

Devastation... And Celebration

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My life changed on May 11, 1996.

One day I will talk at length about the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades. I will tell you about the way WFOR handled this horrible tragedy, and my role in that coverage. I will tell you what went through my mind, our reporters’ minds, and our bosses' minds. I will tell you why I was compelled to visit the ValuJet memorial in the Everglades, on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy. One day I will, but right now I’m not ready. This one still hurts, in more ways than one.

I do want to mention the remarkable dichotomy that was South Florida thirteen years ago today. On one side of town – the Everglades – family members gathered to ask how an airplane can simply disappear.
Disintegrate… into nothing. They asked police, reporters, cameramen, ANYONE, for information that just wasn’t there. And all around was this feeling of HELPLESSNESS. Nothing we could say, or do, could ease anyone’s minds. Nothing could change a thing. Flight 592 was lost, and out in the swamps that day, so was everybody. It was horrible, to say the least.

Twenty miles away, at what was then known as Joe Robbie Stadium, lefty Al Leiter was making history. After seven innings… make that eight innings… he was pitching a no hitter. One of our sports anchors (either Jim Berry or Joe Zagacki) made us aware of that fact, and as cool as the team’s first no hitter would be, we were secretly hoping he’d blow it. After all, how would we report it, without seeming insensitive to 110 lost souls? One out in the ninth! The crowd is on its feet, cheering. Two outs! While in the Everglades, pitch darkness. No news. No hope. Three outs! He did it! Al Leiter has pitched a no hitter for the Florida Marlins! Celebrate good times, come on! Ya-hoo!

In Joe Robbie Stadium, EUPHORIA! Out in the Everglades… desolation. Devastation.

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If Al Leiter showed us anything that night, it’s that life goes on. It always does. But what a contrast.

There were hundreds of compelling stories in South Florida that day, that week. One of them was playing out, behind the scenes, at WFOR. On this, the anniversary of the ValuJet crash, I’m not going to dwell on the newsroom melodrama, or the many mistakes we made. I’ll get to that some day. Today I want to remember the 110 people who never made it to Atlanta that day. I want to remember the good folks that worked for ValuJet, oblivious to the practices of the airline (and its maintenance contractor) that resulted in combustible oxygen generators being placed in the cargo hold that day. I want to remember the face of one boy who lost his mother, and wondered aloud, ten years later, how different his life could have been. I want to recall the rescuer who broke down in tears, still traumatized by the helplessness he felt. And I want to invite you to join the Facebook group “Remembering ValuJet Flight 592” that I started a few months ago, not just for the loved ones of the victims, but for my own healing as well.

If you get a chance, visit the Flight 592 Memorial, off the Tamiami Trail. Be sure to bring some tissues.

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