“Whatever is true, whatever is noble,whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable —if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
–The Bible, Philippians 4:8
My first job after graduating from Journalism School in 1979 was working as a police reporter in the City of Chicago. To find stories, I was required to go to different police stations around the city to see what I can learn about the day’s mayhem. We were supposed to cover the worst things that could happen, like murder, big fires, major car crashes, train wrecks and other tragedies.
I figure out very quickly that the police liked to kid with the reporters and they typically had a black sense of humor. For example, one police man showedme a photo of a dead man whose face was covered with vomit. The cop was joking about how it looked like the dead man had eaten pepperoni pizza before he died. On Friday, May 25 at the end of my first week on the job, when a police officer at the Rodgers Park police station pointed out smoke to me somemiles west of the station and said it was coming from a plane that had crashedat O’Hare airport, I thought he was kidding. When I realized he was not, I then rememberedthat my parents were at the airport at that very moment, on their way to Florida.
So I called the city desk in a panic and asked “Where was the plane that crashed headed?” The editor told me Los Angeles. So I breathed a sigh of relief andasked him what had happened with the plane that crashed. He said it was an American Airlines plane (Flight 191) on its way to Los Angeles that had crashed just after takeoff when the left engine fell off the wing. Just unbelievable.
When the plane crashed in a field in Des Plaines, about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) from the end of the runway, it burst into flames. Firefighters and police wentto the area to see if there were any people that might have survived. What they saw and smelled instead were smoldering body parts. No one survived. The crash killed 258 passengers, 13 crew, plus two people on the ground. It was the deadliest plane crash ever in the United States.
One of my coworkers at the City News Bureau wire service where I worked could have passed for a policeman, with short black hair, conservative dress and a serious demeanor. Gerry was one of the first reporters to arrive at the scene of the crash. He told me he went out on the smoky field where body parts were mixed among pieces of metal and broken cables. “Wow,” I said, impressed that he gotpass the police who typically block access to such scenes of carnage. “That must have been something to see.” Gerry nodded, sipped his beer, and was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “I wish I hadn’t gone. I saw burning flesh,smashed-up suitcases, and other things that I can’t get out of my head now.” I had not thought of this. Sometimes you want to rush into a situation to get a scoop but then you are unable to ever forget what you saw. It remains with you always, despite your efforts to block it out.
I continued to work for the City News Bureau, a wire service that supplied the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun Times, CBS, ABC, NBC and other television and radio stations with news, for another year. But seeing and reporting about death and destruction every week day for a year really took a toll on me. I would frequent wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, from a nightmare I had just had.
Even so, I was curious about the death of some of the people I reported about. Forexample, for several months, I worked on the night shift, covering news events from 4 pm until midnight. On this shift, I got friendly with a staff member who worked at the Cook County Morgue. Bodies were sent there when people died from unnatural causes, such as through being beaten to death, shot or being killed in a car crash.
Once, during the night shift, I wrote a story about a teenage boy who had been killed in a car accident. I was talking to the staff worker at the morgue to get details about the victim, such as his name, where he lived, his age, and anything else he could tell me. The worker, David, told me the body was at already there now. I asked him if I could come over and see it. He said sure.
So I came over and David said the body was in the basement in one of the coolers. I decided to go with him to see the boy. I can’t tell you why I wanted to see this particular body. By then, I had written about many dead people. Maybe I just wanted to put a face with the name, for once. So we went downstairs and he opened up a cooler that held at least six bodies. They were stacked on cots that were attached to the wall, with 3 cots on the left hand side of the cooler and three on the right. All the cots had bodies on them. David said, “Here is the boy you wrote your story about.” I looked at his face and his eyes were closed. He could have been sleeping! The rest of his body looked undamaged. I said, “Thanks, David. I appreciate it.” I didn’t look at the other people, except to note that the rest of them looked a lot older.
I was ready to go back upstairs then, having made a connection to one of the people I had written about. Now I just felt sorry for his family. But David said, “Hey, do you want to see some Gacy victims? They are locked up in this cooler over here.”
John Wayne Gacy Jr. was a Chicago area-based serial killer. He murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978 after sexually assaulting them.
Gacy had buried 26 of his victims in the basement of his home. This was 1979, only a year after his crimes were uncovered, and before many victims had been identified.
I thought it over for a few seconds and decided I didn’t want to have these bodies stuck in my mind for the rest of my life, and suffer the fate that happened to Jerry (and undoubtedly to the first responders) after seeing the remains of victims from the American Airlines crash at O’Hare Airport. I decided it was best to not look at all because then I couldn’t keep these images from haunting me for years to come.
Life Lesson: Sometimes it is best to avoid looking at what you don’t really want to see. If you have a choice in the matter, look away and instead focus your mind on what is true, noble, right and pure.