You may (or probably not) have noticed my relative silence in the blog world last week, and you may have even guessed that it wasn't for no reason: I was reeling from the death of two local newscasters, and posting about things like fashion and weddings just didn't feel appropriate when two people in my community had just died.
I didn't know Alison Parker or Adam Ward personally, and I can't say anything about them, mental health reform, or gun laws that hasn't already been said. What I can do is write about what it was like to have my own sense of safety in my community turned upside down in one day. Since, in the end, this blog is my personal journal, I can write about what August 26th was like for me.
I'm very much a creature of habit, and Channel 7, WDBJ, has been part of my daily routine since before I can remember. My parents started watching the news on Channel 7 when they moved to Roanoke in the 1960's, and it's the station we always turned to for breaking news, weather reports, and local sports scores (I can remember staying up late on Friday nights in middle and high school to see if my school's football team got any airtime on Friday Football Extra). There are three local stations, and WDBJ's reporters have always seemed to have the perfect balance of approachability and trustworthiness - their reports are not sensationalized, the accused in crime reports are portrayed as innocent until proven guilty, and the people on camera, behind the desk and in the field, often show that they are human beings with a sense of humor and compassion.
My day starts with the WDBJ7 Mornin' (that's really what it's called) show while I'm making my breakfast, drinking coffee, and checking Facebook and e-mail. On Wednesday, August 26th, I was in the kitchen turning on the stove and listening distractedly to Alison's report on tourism at Smith Mountain Lake when I heard gunshots on the television, followed by women's screams. Since I wasn't looking at the television, but was sure I'd heard shots, I hit the rewind button on the remote and was stunned by what I saw. When Mr. Q came downstairs to head to work, I said, "I think Alison Parker has been shot."
I wanted to stay at home until the reporters came back with an update on what had actually happened at the lake - I was hopeful that a lost hunter or random disgruntled neighbor had fired a gun into the air close to the marina, and that Alison and the woman she was interviewing, Vicki Gardner, had screamed out of surprise, not pain. I wanted to stay at home because my legs were shaking as I stood up to put my dishes in the sink, but I knew my students had seen the same thing on television that I had, and that I needed to be in the classroom before they arrived at school.
When I got to my classroom, since none of the local news stations had posted anything on their official pages yet, I pulled up Facebook on my laptop and went to WDBJ's page. People were already speculating that three people had been shot - Alison, Vicki Gardner, and the cameraman. People who live near the lake posted that they had heard sirens coming from both directions and that the bridge was closed. Someone had posted a screencap of the shooter staring into the camera, which I hadn't noticed when I watched the footage on television because the broadcast went back to the studio so fast, but the man's face was blurry. I minimized the window when my kids started coming into the classroom, asking me if I had watched the news. "I think two people died," one of my girls said. One of my boys was worried because his mom works at the plaza where the interview was taking place, but I told him that the bridge was closed and that someone had certainly called his mother and told her to stay home.
When the news sites did start posting that there had been a shooting and that the gunman was on the run, I expected my school to go on lockdown at any time. After all, we didn't know if this was a domestic incident of some sort, one man with a vendetta, or a whole group of people bent on destruction. Twice, an administrator rattled my doorknob to make sure it was securely locked, and, taking the hint, I didn't let kids go to the restroom or library. A friend who was testing a group of students in the computer lab later told me that an administrator had come in to tell her to close the blinds on the windows.
By my planning period, colleagues were talking about the fact that the shooter was the man we knew as Brice Williams, a former WDBJ reporter, and that he was live-Tweeting his crime and egress from the scene. According to the latest news report at the time, his car had been found, quite far away from Smith Mountain Lake and from us. I guessed before the news sites reported it that he had taken his own life.
At home on Wednesday evening, I felt very similarly to how I felt after the Virginia Tech shootings while I still lived in Charlottesville. I wanted to find as many articles, as much information as possible, but at the same time I didn't want to see the video or hear what I'd heard that morning ever again. I heard Alison's screams in my head when I went to bed that night, and when I woke up the next day. Two articles that helped me cope were "Before you watch the videos of the Virginia murder..." and "WDBJ staffers pull together after attack on 'our family.'" On Thursday, I was impressed by our local anchor and meteorologist who returned to work the next morning after losing two of their dear colleagues, and my heart broke for them as they fought to hold back their tears.
Our community has rallied around WDBJ - even though I've only met most of the reporters very briefly in "real life," tried on clothes one dressing room over or sat in the next booth at restaurants, they do feel like family because they come into my living room each day, because they help me make sense of the world. However, this is one news story I don't think I'll ever be able to comprehend. The idea that someone would take two lives because of small actions or comments they probably didn't even remember is incomprehensible. It's not as if Roanoke or even Smith Mountain Lake were perfect communities, but we've never dealt with anything quite like this. Two sets of parents lost their children. My high school friend lost his little brother. Two other members of the WDBJ staff, Chris Hurst and Melissa Ott, lost the loves of their lives. We lost two sweet souls who loved Roanoke with all their hearts. I'm surer than ever that Roanoke is my home, that this place is more than just a city and the valley that surrounds it. We are a family. We are strong.