Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Better Late Than Never

"Reporting live from the Memorial for the Sweat boys, back to you."

It's one of those moments with which every reporter, news editor, photographer, or manager has had to deal.  You are caught flat-footed, the competition is "there," and you are not.
Coleman Sweat, 14

In this case, it is a sober memorial service for two boys, Coleman, 14, and Trevan, 7, the brothers are killed in a freak accident last week, when the pair step onto an icy cornice, that tumbles down a slight incline, some 50 feet to a meadow below, killing both of them.

In our newsroom, filled with mom's and dads, these stories always sting, but we are required to cover them and when Executive Producer Jeremy Laird and I glance at the screen above his desk, we watch as the camera of our competition pans a large school auditorium teeming with mourners we both know, I'm heading to Heber City, more than an hour away.  "It might be over when you get there" Jeremy says exasperated, "but see what you can get."

Trevan Sweat, 7
"There is a camel that is going to show up Brewvies at 7," I exclaim into my cell phone to the assignment desk editor, as Photographer Dan Kovach and I barrel down I-15 towards Wasatch County, "if we don't make it to the memorial in time, maybe I could do that," I suggest, as a backup story.   I'm pretty certain we'll never make it to the sight of the service before tearful moms, and glassy eyed middle school students, hug one last time, then head into the numbing, brutal cold.

As we careen through the first stop light in Francis and the Diary Keen, in downtown Heber, we spot a relentless line of cars slowly marching out of the parking lot of Rocky Mountain Middle School.

"It's over," Dan breaths out, "What do you want to do?" He asks hopelessly.  "Let's go in and look around," I shut my eyes pressing my thumbs against my lids.

As we pass the trophy case, and the "administrative" office we find ourselves pressing through a sea of emotional teens and parents, towards the auditorium, while everyone else is leaving it.  As I step into the empty cavernous box, a few balloons bounce erratically against the ceiling rafters, the seats, usually overflowing with middle-schoolers rooting for their classmates in a messy, yet raucous basketball game are barren, save a few discarded programs and a forgotten woolen stocking cap.
Cornice collapse (Courtesy Deseret News)

A few moments ago, our story was in this room.  Filled, by all accounts, with a thousand people, singing, praying and remembering those two boys, but for me, only the orphaned winter hat remains.

As Dan tries to salvage the story, he aims his camera at the crowd, taking a few frames of video, as the mass of people vacate, drained emotionally by what was a touching memorial.

"Were the Sweats here?" I ask a gentle-faced farmer in a beige Carhartt work coat, and worn but sturdy jeans as he passes by, "They were," he pronounces in his distinct Utah accent, found outside the confines of Salt Lake and Park City, "In fact they were just outside a minute ago," he points his thick rugged index finger towards the back doors of the school, where I see a handful of people lingering and hugging with candles in their hands.

As I push my way through the glass doors, I see dozens of people huddled together, as ice smoke rises from their mouths, holding candles and stomping their feet on the broad expanse of pavement in the back of the school.

Dan takes artful pictures of flickering flames, as I begin to survey what remains of this possible story. "Are any members of the Sweat family still here?" I inquire to a man who has been moving gracefully through the crowd, shaking hands and hugging tearful teens as he heads towards his car, "Sweats?  The Sweats are everywhere," he says kindly, pointing to a throng of men in cowboy hats, and women in boots, "they're all Sweats," he says palm open, "Is Jason here?" I say, asking if the father of the boys is still in attendance.  "The man squints, as his eyes pan the crowd "Let's see," he tallies the faces, "yup, that's him," he points towards a tall man in a black baseball cap, patting other men on their backs and getting embraced by little old ladies who probably knew him since he, "was this high."

As I slowly drift towards the grieving father, I hear his attempts at normalcy  "What weight will ya wrestle at next year?" he asks matter-of-factly to a nervous boy nearly 14 years old.  I interrupt, "Jason, I'm Chris Jones from 2 News, could I talk to you about your boys?" I ask softly, "sure," he says eager to tell me that Trevan had "a strong heart," and just about everyone, "loved," Coleman.

As Dan finishes up with a few pictures of Jason, I hold my chilled fingers over my aching ears, think about how well this dad seems to be holding up, and begin to fashion a script in my head for the 10 PM newscast.

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