Today (February 12th) marks the fifth anniversary of the crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence.  The following is a column I penned for the March 2009 edition of the Buffalo Broadcasters Association newsletter in which some of my broadcasting colleagues shared their stories about covering this tragic event:

by Mark Scott, Newsletter Editor

Through the years, I’ve listened to public radio colleagues from other cities as they reported on the NPR news magazines about disasters in their communities.  I would have two thoughts – one, that I was grateful we never had to deal with a major loss of life in a disaster here, and the second thought was how would we respond if such a disaster happened here.  Perhaps the broadcast journalists reading this have pondered similar thoughts.  

Sure, we’ve covered some fairly significant stories – the most recent the October 2006 snowstorm and its aftermath.  But the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center on February 12th was different.  Fifty lives were lost in an instant.  It’s been said if you didn’t personally know someone on board Flight 3407, you know someone who did.  And the broadcast industry – both television and radio – responded admirably.

I was fast asleep when the phone rang at my house.   NPR’s newscast editor, John Stempin, an old friend from Buffalo and an alumnus of WEBR and WGR, called to say a plane had crashed into a house in Clarence.  It was time to implement the WBFO emergency plan for the first time since the October snowstorm.  I woke up Eileen Buckley, who quickly made her way to Clarence Town Hall.  She filed live reports during the overnight hours and then on Morning Edition, including an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep that aired nationally.  Reporter Joyce  Kryszak  conducted a half-dozen interviews.  Bert Gambini anchored our coverage and was joined by Morning Edition back-up host Howard Riedel.

I was covering a National Transportation Safety Board news conference and had a chance to talk with WGRZ reporter Dave McKinley, who shared his incredible story with me.  Dave had made his way to the crash site shortly after receiving word of the crash.  Many of the first reporters and photographers on the scene were able to get close before authorities established a perimeter.  Dave was equipped with a battery powered computer and “Skype” software that allowed him to provide an eyewitness account of what was unfolding before him.  Fearful that he would be discovered, Dave says he found a spot that offered some camouflage.  Standing in mud – in the snow and cold – Dave stayed on the air until his battery died.  Hoping that someone was going to bring a new battery, he stayed put.  But after hours of breathing the smoke from the fire, Dave began to feel ill and actually found a place on some twigs and sticks to lie down.   When it became apparent no one was coming with a new battery, Dave came out of his   hiding place and was invited by the residents of a nearby home to come in and warm up.

After talking with Dave, I realized that there were other stories to tell.  And I thought the Buffalo Broadcasters newsletter would be the perfect venue to do so.  I reached out to colleagues at other TV and radio stations to share their reflections. 

From Jim Ranney, news director, WNED-AM:

Reporter Mike Desmond was still at the station when he learned about the crash.  He went to the scene and provided updates throughout the overnight.  We dropped BBC newscasts and did local news from midnight to 5am when Morning Edition started.  Mike and Chris Caya provided live reports through morning drive and Jay Moran and I did live interviews.  The station also provided live coverage of all county briefings through Sunday and all NTSB briefings through the following week.

This was truly an “all hands on-deck” story, especially given our small staff.  I am proud of the dedication and commitment displayed byeveryone.

From John John Di Sciullo, Director of Strategic Content, News Operations, and Community Affairs, WKBW-TV:

At WKBW-TV, like all other media outlets, the first word of the Crash of Flight 3407 came as multiple urgent calls from the assignment desk scanners at approximately 10:21pm.  I was at the station, and bolted out of my office to join our Assignment Editor Rick Kowalski, anchors Joanna Pasceri and Keith Radford, with reporters John Borsa and Steve Barber along with producer Jeff Poth.  After just a few seconds, this team engaged in making the important decision to totally ditch the entire rundown for the 11pm news.

Barber and Borsa left for the scene with photographers Lou Chilelli, Jim Herr, and Chris Podosek with John Warren in the satellite truck following close behind.

What made the initial coverage so compelling was that it was executed by a team that relied on their years of experience.  The first reports aired as LIVE phone calls, with maps and still images sent from cell phones.  It became obvious to everyone that the initial scanner call that a ‘small plane’ had crashed into a home was much more than that.  Keith Radford’s steady on-air demeanor,  expertise in aviation, with Joanna Pasceri’s journalistic skills, kicked off what would be sustaining coverage until 7am the next morning.  Steve and John were two of the first reporters on the scene, witnessing the horrors, and processing information…LIVE. 

WKBW, like other stations, then brought in more and more people to cover the story on-air and online.  The video that followed, news conferences with brave first responders, the NTSB, national media convergence, and ultimately the information on the victims and their  families, brought a community together like no other news event in the history of WNY.  Each and every news outlet in WNY covered the story with professionalism, dignity and respect.

From Barbara Burns, senior reporter, WBEN-AM:

It’s the biggest story we will ever cover but the story we never want to cover.  In a time when the media is so maligned for its behavior, and in many cases much deserved, I believe the WNY media, including radio, TV and print, did not only the best job professionally but showed a compassion unmatched by any national organization. After airing an interview with a survivor of the crash, my phone and e-mail were inundated with messages and requests from many a national media outlet. Good Morning America, Nightline, The CBS Early Show, The Today Show…representatives of Inside Edition and the NBC Nightly News even camped out in the Entercom lobby convinced I was still here Friday night after the crash. Each “sounded” sincere but I shook my head after one outlet suggested the country would come to the aid of victims families if they appeared on a “national” show.

When the first text came, I had no idea what to expect. Within a very short period of time, I realized the magnitude of what was happening to our community — our WNY family.  A long night turned into a couple of long days.  But it wasn’t about us, the media.   Rather, this was about 50 victims, each with family and friends and a story to tell.

At WBEN, it was all hands on deck. From the news staff to talk show hosts to behind the scenes folks, all wanted to contribute.  We let those with no connection to a victim but who were impacted by the tragedy share their thoughts and well wishes. WBEN was just one resource for folks to turn to.

I’m sure many communities across the country would respond with the same love and support as ours did.  But after a “few” years in this business, I believe WNY is special, our spirit and sense of community would be hard to match.

Personally, I am in awe of and inspired by the Town of Clarence, its leaders and residents, every first responder and law enforcer and the courage and grace of victims’ families.

To my colleagues, we occasionally have our moments, but a more hardworking and caring bunch I don’t think I could find.      

From Mylous Hairston, news anchor, WIVB-TV:

From the beginning I could tell this would be like no story the News 4 Team had covered before. It was surreal. The enormity of the tragedy really hit home when members of the News Team were personally affected, as they lost friends on that flight. It was during this time that I saw more energy directed at not only trying to cover the story, but in capturing the right tone. From one perspective, it was the big one. The breaking and developing news stories we all live for. On the other hand, it was the story we all wish had not taken place. I think we were in as much shock as most of the community.

From Mark Scott, newsletter editor and news director of WBFO-FM:

I’d like to thank my colleagues who contributed to this article.  We might be competitors.  But we also work together, especially at a time of crisis like this.  I know many more of you may have stories to share.  Feel free to send me a note at [email protected], and we’ll include your comments in the June edition of our newsletter.

The risk of doing an article like this is that I am probably leaving out other broadcasters who likely performed admirably during this terrible time for our community.  I personally caught some of WBEN’s and WNED’s coverage, and I watched each of the TV newscasts in the days that followed the crash.  But there are stations that I didn’t get a chance to hear.  For instance, I was told by a couple of people that Shredd and Ragan on WEDG did an outstanding job on their February 13th show.  Tom Schuh, Tom Donahue, Loraine O’Donnell and the rest of the staff provided coverage and interviews on WECK-AM.   And no doubt, music intensive stations such as WGRF, WJYE, WTSS, WHTT and WYRK made sure their listeners were kept up to date on the very latest information on the crash.  

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