This has been one of the most difficult weeks I have ever experienced at a newspaper. Two staff members, two of our friends have died. But we didn’t know that in the beginning. So it has been a week of wondering, and searching, and hoping and praying. Until Wednesday evening when we finally learned the truth — a truth we had suspected, but dared to hope against all the same.
On Sunday Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer, two staff members of the Daily Inter Lake, took off from Kalispell City Airport with two friends from Missoula. They were going on a scenic flight over Glacier National Park that afternoon. When Monday morning arrived and still there had been no word from them law enforcement got involved and the search began. That afternoon, my part in the story began. Scott called me into the office to tell me he needed me to go to the airport and get a shot of a car in the parking lot and to look for any search planes taking off. Normally that information is something he could just tell me over the phone, except in case the car that I am looking for belongs to a friend. And search planes are going up and looking for people I know. He asked me if I was able to do this assignment. I am grateful for that kindness, but I felt I needed to do my job and so I went to airport.
In the news business we try to keep the right amount of distance from the stories we cover. In the best case the desire is to document and tell their stories objectively. Emotions destroy objectivity. Therefore we have all been trained to build and maintain our very own wall of separation. It serves the truth because we keep our objectivity. And it protects us. So, in the news one of the cardinal rules is: tell the story, but don’t become part of the story. In this case that has been impossible. This is not merely a missing plane. This is members of our family who have gone missing. And the story to tell, is our own.
So Monday afternoon I went to the airport. Through tears I took the photo of the car. I found out a pilot was preparing to take off to go searching and so I waited around and asked him he would mind if I took some photographs while he got the plane ready to fly. Did they go down in Glacier? That was one of our nightmares. Glacier is huge. And wild. And there is still snow up there. A white plane and white snow — if the plane went down in Glacier we had to acknowledge the fact that the plane may never be found. When the pilot started working on the plane I went with him. He was very kind and encouraging. It made me hopeful. And as I took my last photos of the plane taking off I prayed that these would be the pilots who would find my friends. I prayed for a miracle, that they would be safe and well and simply waiting for rescuers to pick them up and bring them back.
That evening we learned that the plane had been picked up on radar in the south, and that search efforts were now focused on the Bison area. On Tuesday Nate, the other photographer, and Jim one of the reporters, headed down to that area to cover the search. While Nate worked all day on that I was in Kalispell to cover whatever else there may be. It seems to me that Tuesday and Wednesday were only about waiting. I felt over and over that I should be doing more, but there was nothing more to do. We all waited.
Wednesday Nate and Jim returned to the south and again I am in Kalispell working and waiting. That afternoon things began to change. For three days every time Scott’s phone rang the newsroom quieted to listen. He would give us any updates he had as soon as he hangs up, but we were desperate for clues and so we listened to what little there was to hear. In a way it reminded me of the way I imagine newsrooms of the past must have been. I have never seen it, but there was a time when newspapers were king, when the newsroom was the very heart of the flow of information, and when journalist were the vigilant guardians of the truth. In these days information has come into the newsroom, updates from rescuers, phone calls from family members, tips and sightings from the genuine to the bizarre, and all of that gets sorted through carefully for the truth. “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Where did that quote come from? I don’t remember, but it’s the undercurrent to everything. Keep to the facts. Report the facts. Tell the story. Tell the truth. As I have watched my co-workers this week I have seen again and again that remnant of the nobility this profession used to stand for. Wait, that came out wrong. The news industry still does stand for those principles, still does strive for the truth, but world has changed. Now people are more eager for a rumor (credible source or not) than for clear, hard facts from journalists.
Wednesday evening we finally got the word. The plane has been found. The crash site is nearly unreachable. Rough terrain. One person has been lowered from a helicopter to the site. No survivors. No survivors. No survivors. It echos in the mind. Erika Hoefer, 27, Melissa Weaver, 23 as well as Brian Williams, 28, and Sonny Kless, 25. None survived.
If you want to read something beautiful check out the story by Lynette Hintze. She cried as she wrote this.
Later that evening a lot of us gathered at Kristi’s house. KJ brought over a copy of Lynnette’s story and read it to us. That evening we sat around talking about our friends and remembering. Melissa and I had been planing to go river rafting here in the next few weeks. I was so desperately looking forward to that. Two weeks ago I was pretty severely ill and she got me the happiest, silliest little card, yellow with bright flowers and sparkles, telling me to get well. As we talked I suddenly remembered that I spoke to Erika on Sunday afternoon. She had called to tell me that there were people jousting at the park near the courthouse, just an FYI, in case I needed a photo. It was after one when she called and she must have been on her way to the airport.
We talked about our friends. Their smiles. Their style. How they brightened the newsroom and our lives. How much they will be missed.
Yesterday was another day of news related to the crash. Nate went south again to do arial photos of the crash site. When the day finally ended I was so ready to be home. I came to the house, made supper and thought about what I wanted to do, what I needed to do. I needed to be out making pictures. I needed to find someway to grieve and remember and show honor to my friends and to keep on living because you never know which day will be your last. My friend Nancy and I talked a little about that as we left Kristi’s. The need we feel to live with heightened awareness. To value each day, each moment. To tell the ones we love that we love them while we have the chance. I’ve felt this before…when my parents died…that inescapable knowledge that everyone of us will face death and we must therefore live the days we are given as fully as possible.
And so at 7 o’clock I headed for Glacier. One week prior I had been in the park for the opening of Logan Pass. The road that runs through Glacier is only open a few short months in the summer. This year it opened on June 24th and I was up there documenting that for the paper. The road was already closed when I moved to Montana last November so that trip was farther into the park than I had ever been. As I drove up to Logan Pass I pasted a section called The Weeping Wall. The melting snows create a section of the road where water pours off the rocks non-stop. I asked someone about this – they said that unless it is an extremely dry year the weeping wall continues to gush water all summer. I like the name. And as I wondered where I should go to honor my friends I immediately thought of this place and knew that is where I was headed.
It was beautiful. By the time I got up to the wall it was 8:30/9 o’clock. The sun was setting fast and light was very low. But the rocks and the water, they picked up every trace of light available. And as the Weeping Wall cried, I found the pictures I wanted to make. The drops of water became tears and I wanted those individual drops. The rocks created blue and purple and black abstract backgrounds for those individual tears. By the time I was finished I was drenched. Water had soaked my hair. Soaked my sneakers and blue jeans. When the sun set the air became positively frigid and all I could think was that I was wet and very, very cold. But also happy. I am really happy with the photos from night. I am really pleased with this small memorial to my friends. Hereafter when I visit Glacier I will associate the Weeping Wall with them. It will be my way to remember.
There is a poem by Gregory Orr that I read recently and loved. At the time I first read it my thoughts were of my parents. But grief is universal. And the words he wrote are just as true for Melissa and Erika. The poem is untitled.
In memory of friends gone too soon.
“And flights of angles sing thee to thy rest.”