The drive to West I didn’t have to make
The card in the photo above has spent most of its existence tucked into a paperback copy of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel Hogfather; how it came to be in that particular book escapes me. Probably it had sat for a while on my bedside table and was thus handy when I needed a bookmark.
I was handed it eight years ago Thursday as I left a courtroom in the McLennan County Courthouse in Waco after a lawyer (probably the plaintiff’s) decided that I needed to not be on the jury in a lease dispute case, likely because I was the one apartment dweller in the pool. But the card summoning me to Justice of the Peace David Pareya’s court, 18 miles up Interstate 35 in West, three days later meant that my potential jury duty was not yet done.
(That Monday in 2013 when I was at the courthouse was also the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, and was topped off when I learned that Mandy Oei, a friend from the Usenet group alt.callahans who I had just resumed contact with on Facebook and in World of Warcraft, had died four days earlier. Facebook Memories served me up the post where I said “This day is so fired” but not the one where I said why, exactly; I had to go digging in the archive to find out. But I digress.)
When Thursday arrived, however, I got a by-then-expected phone call telling me that I was released from my obligation. In Texas, you see, justices of the peace in counties without a coroner’s office act as medical examiners.
On the day I was to have served as a potential juror in his court, David Pareya was a very, very busy man.
Eight years ago today I was at my desk in the Waco Tribune-Herald newsroom. My duties in general at that time were split between editing and page design work on the print edition and helping manage the Trib’s social media accounts; I also had a blog for weather-related news, in which capacity I had access to the National Weather Service’s online chat for media and emergency responders, chiefly used during severe weather events.
On that particular evening I was laying out wire pages and editing and writing headlines for the stories. One story concerned letters laced with the poison ricin that had been addressed to President Obama and to Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker; a little after 7 pm I posted to Facebook complaining about the confusion in Associated Press stories over whether an arrest had been made. (One had, but he quickly turned out to be the wrong guy.)
About half an hour after I sent that post, we started hearing about a big fire in West. Then two things happened in quick succession: someone on the Weather Service chat up around Lake Whitney asked if anyone else had felt an earthquake… and someone on the newsroom’s emergency-band radio scanner started shouting about an explosion, and firefighters being down. The blaze at the West Fertilizer Company had just set off part of the plant’s stockpile of ammonium nitrate.
Shortly after that, my job for the night changed — my wire pages were handed off to someone else to finish, and I spent the rest of the evening sending out social-media updates and monitoring Twitter for fresh information. One of the most frustrating parts of the evening was the wildly varying numbers on how many had been killed or injured — none of them from an authoritative source. That didn’t stop the speculation, especially since no headline about an event like that seems complete without a number: West explosion kills [x]. But it was dark, and the fire was still burning, and no one could get close enough to count the corpses. No one knew yet precisely how bad it was, and it was fairly plain that no one would know until morning at least — but we still had a paper to get out before then, and the TV stations and networks were live and had to say something. And so reporters at the press conferences throughout the night kept finding new ways to ask for a number, hoping that they would have the magic formulation that would unlock the scoop, and officials kept saying: We don’t know.
And all of us were on Twitter. That was, I think, the first story where I truly realized that our website and social media had made us just as much broadcasters as the TV stations — we now had just as much pressure to get the story out, RIGHT NOW, where before being able to aim for the next morning’s paper allowed us greater freedom to wait and make sure we had the story right. And if you can’t get information directly, the temptation is strong to relay what someone else is saying, hopefully with attribution: CNN is reporting that…
A lot of what I was doing that night was frantically trying to drill through the reports of reports of reports to find out what the actual sources had been, and often it traced back to the same someone-pulling-from-their-hindquarters. Meanwhile, of course, while I had my head down with that, we had actual reporters out in West and working the phones in the newsroom. It wasn’t until midnight, after we went to press, that we got the first official confirmation of fatalities, and not until 4:30 am that we got the first estimate of five to 15 people killed (the total wound up being 15). (Here’s the Trib’s initial story with running updates throughout the next day, if you’re interested. You have to scroll way down, to the paragraph that begins “Previously:” — which I mentally hear in the voice of a TV announcer starting the scenes-from-last-week montage — to get to the part that went into print on the morning of the 18th.)
I do not remember what time I finally got home. I think it was after that midnight press conference but before that 4:30 am one. But I do remember being awoken by the call from McLennan County telling me I was excused from jury duty… and then going back to sleep.