How to cover a tragedy: San Antonio paper offers sensitive, insightful reporting on church bus crash

Years ago, I helped cover the funerals in a small West Texas town after eight senior citizens were killed in a church bus crash.

I couldn't help but recall that heart-wrenching tragedy as news broke Wednesday of another church bus crash — this one with an even higher death toll:

As a reporter, I always hate handling first-day stories on tragedies such as this. Pressing crash investigators for the basic details of what happened is no problem. But seeking comments from grieving loved ones is never easy. Never.

With my personal experience in my mind, I am impressed with the San Antonio Express-News' main front-page story today.

The piece offers sensitive and insightful reporting on the tragedy, which occurred in the San Antonio paper's coverage area.

The lede nicely sets the scene:

NEW BRAUNFELS — The fellowship at the senior retreat at Alto Frio Baptist Camp and Conference Center had been rewarding.
The meals were good. The testimonies touched everyone. The weather of the scenic Texas Hill Country was fantastic.
Then came time to leave Wednesday afternoon, and most of the 65 members of the choir group from First Baptist Church of New Braunfels got into their various cars and began the 130-mile trek back home, recounted Caroline Deavors, who was on the retreat.
But not everyone had a car, she said, so 14 church members got onto the church’s small bus, driven by semi-retired middle school math teacher Murray Barrett.
Deavors had a car and had a passenger with her.
“They were right behind us,” Deavors said. “They left right after we did.”
As she and her passenger headed south on U.S. 83, they saw a string of ambulances go by but didn’t think much about it.
It wasn’t until she got home that she learned about the tragedy that had taken place behind her: Barrett and 12 bus passengers were killed when authorities said the driver of a Dodge pickup crossed the center line and hit the bus head-on about 30 miles north of Uvalde.

Sometimes, all it takes is one source — one eyewitness — to help readers understand the circumstances of a tragedy such as this. Deavors fulfills that role. 

Later in the story, the Express-News does an excellent job of describing the scene at the church:

In New Braunfels, congregation members gathered at the church, reaching out to each other in their grief.
“Shock, just shock,” said Nancy Lacey, a 10-year resident of New Braunfels, as she arrived at the church Wednesday evening. “You see things like this on the news. Now it’s here.”
From across the street, about three dozen members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church held hands and walked to the First Baptist sanctuary to lend support.
Amity Dohoney, 21, said she had known the bus driver since her pre-teen years. He taught her seventh- and eighth-grade math, and they remained close through the church.
“He was always such an upbeat person,” she said. “He loved people. He’d do anything to help them.”
Somber church members passed by as Dohoney and Deavors spoke. Nearby, little children oblivious to the adults were happily running around the playground.
The normal Wednesday night service had been canceled, but many members didn’t hear about that until they arrived. They were joined in the church by others, who were drawn to the church in the wake of the tragedy.

Overall, it's just an outstanding piece of breaking-news journalism that certainly gets religion, including — and I'm just guessing here — knowing that folks would be gathered at the Baptist church on a Wednesday night.

The report ends this way:

Members of the congregation at the church were leaning on each other and their faith.
“We know that everyone on that bus knew the Lord and we’ll see them again,” Lacey said, adding that the best thing people can do is “keep praying.”
“There is power in prayer,” she said. “When two people gather, He’s there.”

Kudos to the Express-News.

Image via San Antonio Express-News


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