Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chardon: The Morning of Feb. 27, 2012

It was one year ago that I was on my way to UH Geauga Medical Center to gather some information for an upcoming general news story. While riding down Auburn Road at about 8 a.m. my cell phone rang. It was my daughter telling me she had just heard that a shooting had taken place at Chardon High School and students had been killed.

For a moment, I froze. In disbelief I told her she had to be wrong. But she was insistent. This is what had been reported. I immediately called my executive editor who instructed me to turn around, head to the scene and start reporting.

I arrived before the masses of local and national media hit the area. Walking amidst the parents and relatives who began to gather around Chardon Middle School I deduced that full facts had not yet been released. 

Among rumblings heard were…
One shooter had been caught, another was on the loose…
Students were still in harm’s way…
One student had died, several were injured…

Later, the accurate fact that there was one shooter who killed three students and wounded two others would be revealed.
Meanwhile, it was my job to talk to the gathering crowds. The body language of some told me not to approach them. They remained silent, worried, and needed to be alone. Others wanted to talk, their anxiety spilling forth through their words.

Quickly, the smattering of concerned people surrounding the school increased to hundreds. Some huddled in groups with arms around each other, others waited alone. Many cried. Some were angry. All were anxious to hear that their child was alive and out of harm’s way.

Little by little local and national media descended. Camera crews and reporters were everywhere. Safety forces continued to arrive in droves … rescue vehicles, fire trucks, police cars, helicopters, a black armored tank ….
Attempting to call the newsroom from my cellphone was futile. Signals were shut down from the flood of communications taking place.

Eventually a system was set up at the middle school where children were released to their loved ones. A single guarded door opened intermittently, allowing only a few out at a time. Each that left the building did so with the protective arm of an adult around them, holding them close. None had smiles. Most were serious, some confused, many crying.

As the morning wore on and it was determined that it was safe for the high school students to be released I headed in the direction where media was given access. Walking up the hill, past the stadium I was numb from cold as well as the horror of what was happening. This couldn't be Chardon, this couldn't be the place where multiple young people had just been shot dead. Who could have committed this heinous act? And why?

I would soon be told several versions from the students released from the building. 
As at the middle school, some refused to talk while others were very willing.
One young man who had been in the cafeteria and witnessed the tragedy identified the shooter as T.J. Lane and said that he was wearing a shirt with the word “KILLER” printed on it. Later, it was found out that the student was right.
Some preliminary explanations  provided by other students as to why the incident had taken place were that the shooter was a constant victim of bullying and was carrying out a payback; drugs - including a drug deal gone bad - were involved; and that  a girlfriend was at the center of the controversy.

My thoughts vacillated from those of disbelief to keeping at my task of gathering information to report.

Finally, after almost four hours, I slowly walked back to my car. Freezing from standing out in the cold for so long and dazed from what I had just experienced, emotions finally set in and I found myself shaking. Driving away I wept for what was the saddest tragedy I had ever witnessed.
The sight of a McDonald’s beckoned me to stop for a comforting, hot cup of coffee as well as to get a better grip of myself.
A long day of writing in the newsroom awaited….

--Jean Bonchak


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