The first call a year ago came from an old friend who ran a wire service assignment desk in Washington.
"How far are you from Virginia Tech?"
"About 40 minutes away. Why?"
"There’s a shooting there. People may be dead."
As I grabbed my cameras and headed for Tech, I thought "Christ.Not again. Probably another escaped prisoner."
On Aug. 21, 2006, the first day of classes, prisoner William Morva killed a security guard at a nearby hospital and a cop. He fled onto the Tech campus and school officials locked the campus down until Morva’s capture.
But this was worse. Much worse.
By the time I got to the campus, the first reports that suggested a domestic argument in a campus dorm ended in a shooting were only the beginning. Others reported shots fired elsewhere on campus. Then we found out a mentally-ill student went off the deep end, killing himself, 32 students and faculty. Another 25 lay wounded.
I’ve covered a lot of death and violence over the years but the images of that day still bring nightmares: A cop walking out of Norris hall and vomiting; another sitting in the back of a SWAT-team truck and crying. Later, a State Police investigator choked up when he talked about being in silent classroom filled with bodies and hearing only the sound of vibrating cellphones as anxious parents tried in vain to reach loved ones.
The horror of the day had not yet sunk in when the network news crews descended on Blacksburg like vampire bats. Anchors flew in on their private jets, crews drove their heavy trucks over manicured lawns and double and triple parked on the Tech campus and in downtown Blacksburg.
Some so-called "journalists" called local hospitals, pretending to be relatives, trying to gain access to shooting victims.
On campus, a Tech student with tears streaming down her eyes looked at the gaggle of reporters, photographers, news trucks and satellite dishes and screamed:
Get out of here you god damned vultures!
Leave us alone!
Let us mourn in peace!
You don’t belong here!
I had to agree. I did my job for the service that hired me for that day, sent my photos in and went home. I have not looked again at the images taken that day and doubt that I ever will. What happened at Virginia Tech a year ago was a tragedy. But my profession turned it into a spectacle. I watched in horror as the talking heads, the news networks and even some local papers milked the story over and over.
The coverage of the Tech tragedy was, for the most part, over the top. The news profession went too far. My greatest fear is that they will do it again on this one-year anniversary.