THE DEPARTMENT HEADS and senior editors at The Dallas Morning News had just completed their late Friday afternoon “Lou Grant meeting” to determine which stories would receive priority exposure in the Saturday paper.
Targeted for Page One was a contribution from the Washington bureau on the Reagan budget, an in-depth study of unemployment in Texas and a scene-setter on the next day’s District One congressional election in East Texas. Also under consideration for up-front presentation was the lead sports story about the impending baseball strike and a story the city desk had uncovered: A woman in Oak Cliff had come down with malaria.
“Frankly, we weren’t too thrilled,” says assistant managing editor Bob Mong, “and were thinking about pulling in a good Sunday feature to beef the Saturday paper up.”
Mong, a Midwestern import who is considered by reporters as perhaps the most consistently reasonable figure in the management structure at the News, returned to his office and took a phone call from an editor who was attending a black journalists’ convention in Baltimore.
Out in the newsroom, reporters and editors were wrapping up their assignments for the day, anticipating the trip to their favorite bistro where they would achieve that pre-weekend 0.09 nirvana before heading home.
Larry Powell, features editor for the Metropolitan section, recalls that he was laughing at a circus picture in the Times Herald that identified a parade of elephants as a parade of horses. Powell figured that “someone from the industrial Northeast” had written the caption. Then, at 6:12 or 6:13, Powell remembers seeing someone at the news desk answer a phone and murmur, “Holy —-!”
The call was from an eyewitness who said a plane had gone down at D/FW. Immediately, the news desk alerted Mong, who was the ranking editor at work at the time. Even though Mong realized that tips like this come in about once a year and almost always prove false, he dug into his files and located a folder identified as “Airline Disaster- D/FW Emergency Press Plan.” The report, dated January 1984, was one of several compiled by the News’ cataclysmic events specialist, Jon Kinslow, who had composed contingency plans for coverage of floods, tornados, ice storms, hurricanes and- finally-plane crashes. Kinslow’s dossier of disaster contained a preamble warning that airline crashes are the most challenging events to cover. The file contained a list of up-to-date phone numbers for airport personnel, local Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board offices, police and hospital spokespersons “to be used as a starting place to mobilize the staff.”
At 6:20, Mong answered the phone in his office. The city desk was 99 percent sure that the incident at D/FW was, indeed, a disaster. By 6:30 the crash was confirmed.
Now Mong was faced with the suffocating reality that he would have to coordinate coverage of the biggest story, in terms of national impact, to come out of Dallas since the Kennedy assassination.
Initially, Mong says, there was some chaos in the newsroom. “All of us realized it was a very horrible and momentous event and that we were presented with the greatest challenges of any in our careers,” Mong says. “But this is why we’re in the business. Suddenly, we were faced with a situation that would draw on everyone’s maximum abilities, and that’s what happened.”
Mong was correct-and not just about his own organization. Several of Dallas’ media outlets in print, television and radio rose to the challenge in the hectic hours following the Delta crash, as they struggled to cover the biggest story of their careers. Others turned in performances that were less than sterling.
The initial challenge for the Morning News was what to do about the two-star, the edition that goes to the outlying reaches of the News’ circulation area, with its deadline around 8 p.m.
Those readers were given a hastily constructed account of all that was known in that traumatic first hour: A Delta wide-bodied L-1011 had swooped down from a freak thunderstorm, atomized a Toyota on Highway 114, slammed into a water tower and blown up. Miraculously, there were some survivors.
By now, Mong had mustered a small armada of reporters and photographers and issued traveling orders to three critical focal points-the crash site, the Delta terminal and Parkland Hospital.
Reporter Kent Biffle, who writes a weekly Texana column, was sent to the temporary morgue in a D/FW hangar, although there was no fast-breaking news from that heartbreaking territory. The identity of the dead wouldn’t be released until late the following afternoon, at a press conference at Delta’s corporate offices in Atlanta. Airport security had sealed off the morgue, but Biffle would not be stopped. “I hate to use the word ’sneak,’ ” he says, “but I managed to surreptitiously insinuate my way inside and get a feature from some counselors who had already been summoned to aid friends and relatives who would be called upon to view the remains. I was eventually asked to leave, I might add. Which I did.”
Throughout the evening, off-duty personnel continued to pour into the newsroom, and by the time the critical four-star deadline approached-between 11 and midnight-Mong was ramrodding a news-gathering effort that involved 170 people. “The atmosphere in the newsroom was frenetic, but purposeful,” Mong says. “Nobody lost their temper. We busted our ass.”
Customarily, the Morning News strategically designs each edition around what its hated foe, the Dallas Times Herald, might or might not be covering the same day. Editors at the News and Herald normally read every paragraph in the opposition paper with the sullen scrutiny a woman would give her ex-husband’s date when they show up at the same restaurant. But on that Friday night, there was no time for such considerations.
“Competition is always a factor in this town, but that was very secondary the night 191 went down. Our concern was to set high standards and be comprehensive,” Mong says.
SEVERAL BLOCKS AWAY, at the Dallas Times Herald, an identical drama was taking place. Editor Will Jarrett, who’d had a trying spring and a long summer, had gone to Europe to catch his breath. His principal understudy, Larry Tarleton, was en route to his hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina. So when reporter Rob Feinstein, who was about to board a flight to San Diego, phoned the newsroom to tip them that he’d just heard “some kind of big explosion,” the responsibility of dealing with the Delta crash fell into the lap of assistant managing editor John Oppedahl.
When word of the potential catastrophe hit the Herald office, many editors and reporters were leaving to attend a birthday party at Joe Miller’s for Hugh Aynesworth, the paper’s crack investigative reporter. Medical reporter Linda Little had already left the office and was on the way to pay her rent, then go to Joe Miller’s, when she heard an early report of a possible plane crash on her radio. Immediately, she phoned the paper for an assignment, but she knew that her next destination would be Parkland Memorial Hospital.
Little, with 16 years of experience, has been a health writer at both the News and Herald. Nobody in Dallas can match her savvy and experience when it comes to prowling the antiseptic precincts of Parkland. Little arrived at the hospital about 10 minutes before the first survivors were brought in. Luckily, the emergency crews were ready. Every couple of months, Parkland stages a drill simulating various calamities-a power failure at the hospital, or a tornado hitting downtown Dallas at rush hour. In late April, the hospital staff had an in-depth review of what to do if a jumbo jet should happen to crash. “Of course, they’d also been briefed about how to handle the press,” Little says. “Reporters weren’t allowed inside the emergency room or on the upper floors, and relatives of the survivors were isolated in the cafeteria.”
Little was at a bank of pay phones prepared to call in some early details to the Herald when it suddenly dawned on her that the woman on the next phone, who was having an urgent conversation with someone, was not the relative of a survivor but had been a passenger on Delta Flight 191.
“It was Juanita Williams,” Little says. “She was extremely well-dressed except that she wasn’t wearing shoes. She kept telling the person that she was talking to to be calm, that she wasn’t hurt except for a bruise on her leg and hip. Actually, the thing that most concerned her was that she’d left her purse on the aircraft. She was probably in a state of shock at that point. Later, I imagine, the reality of the thing would begin to register.”
The survivors that Little interviewed that night “were mostly more than willing to talk about what they’d experienced,” she says. “It’s approaching the relatives of the more seriously injured survivors that requires a lot of tact. Reporters have to realize that these people are under enough stress as it is.”
Reporters at Parkland felt that things proceeded smoothly throughout the weekend, although a rumor circulated that a reporter posed as a priest to suck quotes from a grieving relative. “If it’s true, that was a scummy thing to do,” Little says.
When Little finally left the hospital, about 1:15, the Saturday paper was going to press. The headline, “Jet crashes at D/FW,” was in the largest type available in the composing room, the type reserved for headlines that read “JFK Shot.” Beneath that was a six-column photo by Mark Graham. Tall grass was precisely focused in the foreground and the silver tail section of the L-1011, somehow strangely abstract in the photograph, loomed in the background like some majestic memorial to the inexplicable events that had taken place.
MARTY HAAG, the news director at Channel 8, presides over what is generally touted as the most effective operation of its type in Texas and well beyond. Channel 8 personnel contend that Haag takes on the personality of a Gila monster when employees don’t conform to his standards of acceptance. This is one of the reasons why on-the-air snafus at Channel 8 are so infrequent.
Haag usually goes home to monitor WFAA’s 6 p.m. newscast, which was where he was on Friday afternoon when night assignment editor Hugh Scanlen phoned to say that a big jet might be down at D/FW. “As I left home to drive to the station, I noticed that my wife was in the front yard talking to our neighbor, who is a Delta flight attendant,” Haag says. “My wife also is a former flight attendant. I was struck by that.”
During the 10-minute drive to the station, Haag watched his own newscast on a little Sony video set that he keeps in his car and tuned his radio to KRLD to find out what was going on. Early details were sketchy. “I kept thinking this might be nothing, or it might be as horrible as you could possibly imagine,” he says.
By the time Haag presented himself in the newsroom at 6:20, every piece of the station’s live broadcast equipment, along with the Channel 8 helicopter, was en route to the crash scene. As reports from the site began to trickle in, it became painfully obvious that this wasn’t a case of a jetliner that might have skidded off a runway into a muddy field. “When we became aware of the dimension of the story, we knew that we needed to go live with it. There was never any doubt,” Haag says.
DEVELOPMENTS FROM the airport were as rapid as they were dramatic. At 6:37, Gary Reaves forwarded the first live shot from the helicopter. The FAA would not permit the helicopter to come closer than three miles from the crash, but a long-lens camera provided viewers with clear shots of the smoke, debris and overall devastation. At 6:41, Reaves was again on live. At 6:45, there was a live audio report from Jim Fry at the crash site. The first live video was a report by Dave Cassidy at 7:04. At 7:30, Channel 8 news switched back to regular network programming-ABC’s The Comedy Factory.
“By now, we were beginning to repeat ourselves, over and over, and we needed to get everybody collected,” Haag says. “There were reporters just standing around, waiting to be assigned to something.”
Fifteen minutes later, Channel 8 news returned to the air and stayed on with the story until Ted Koppel’s Nightline came on at 10:30, with Koppel grilling Jim Fry for details of the crash.
Before the Friday night effort was over, George Riba, a sportscaster, was issuing reports from the Parkland blood bank. Brad Watson, who had come into the station on his day off, found himself giving live reports from D/FW wearing tennis shorts.
When Fry arrived at work that Friday, his assignment was to cover a union news conference at LTV. The last thing he suspected was that before the evening was over, he’d wind up as Koppel’s featured guest on Nightline.
“When I got to the station, my assignment was changed to a story about police abandoning use of the stun gun,” says Fry. “I interviewed the chief, finished my on-the-air segment and was thinking about going to dinner when one of our night producers, Walt Zwirko, came up with a kind of incredulous look on his race and said a plane might be down at D/FW.”
Fry jumped into a car with photographer Mike Coscia and headed to the south entrance to D/FW while another crew sped to the north end of the airport. “We have radios in the cars that pick up police dispatches, and by the time we got to Highway 183 and Valley View, it was apparent that it was a major disaster. My heart started pounding,” Fry says. “You know, I’m used to covering proposed water rate hike stories at city hall. I was worried at the thought of what I might see and how I would react to that when I got on the air. You don’t know how you’ll react when you see that kind of carnage.”
When Fry arrived at D/FW he checked in at the airport’s Department of Public Safety headquarters, then rode to the crash site in the news unit, rolling through the police barricades behind two ambulances. “The wreckage was scattered around over a 100-yard area, and I talked to some airport officials about how they thought the rescue effort was going,” says Fry. “Then I located a mobile unit and Dave Cassidy interviewed me live about 7:04. I was breathing pretty heavily when I got on the air, but that was because I was out of shape. I just tried to answer his questions as precisely and calmly as I could. I guess I could have vividly described how terrible it really was, but I don’t know what purpose that would have served any more than I see what purpose it serves to stick a camera in the face of a grieving relative and ask them how they feel. That’s inhumane.”
Three hours later, Fry was back at the station, staring into a camera and equipped with an earpiece, fielding questions from Koppel. The next night, Fry watched a tape of himself on Nightline and reviewed his own performance as “adequate.”
CNN picked up the Channel 8 feed and carried it nationwide. Media critics think that Channel 8’s coverage of the Delta disaster will bring an Emmy.
NOBODY, HOWEVER, was forecasting any Emmys for Channels 4 and 5. Channel 4 chose to stick with still another never-to-be-forgotten performance by Bo Derek in Tarzan. The news director at Channel 4, Wendell Harris, later explained that video crews set sail for D/FW without any sense of direction or coordination. Their helicopter arrived on the scene late and was turned back by the FA A. Doug Adams, news director at Channel 5, offered a similar explanation.
Halfway through Wheel of Fortune, which went on at 6:30, Channel 5 began going live periodically with what shots it could muster from near the site.
“I can’t pin down the exact time,” Adams said, “but we just put whatever we had on the air, unedited and unseen. And we continued to cut away from the baseball game whenever we had any new or updated information.”
Adams said that the fact that Channel 8’s regular programming called for them to continue their newscast through until 7 p.m. “gave them a head start and got them out of the gate ahead of the rest of us. And in terms of sheer numbers, in terms of manpower and technical equipment, they’re the best. And they did a terrific job that night. But I thought that our coverage was good coverage. I am certainly not ashamed of it.”
Adams refused to comment on the possibility that Channel 8’s dominance of the coverage of the story of Delta Flight 191 might eventually lead to a beefing up of news resources at Channel 5.
“But I imagine August 2 will be mentioned the next time we go into a budget meeting,” Adams said.
Jerry Coffey, the television critic at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 20 years, says that he was dumbfounded at the incompetence that the two stations demonstrated. “Well, let’s just say that 4 and 5 didn’t exactly distinguish themselves with their Friday night coverage,” says Coffey. “It was the damndest thing I ever saw.. .or never saw.”
FOR RICHARD WALKER, executive editor at KRLD radio news, the big story on August 2 was the warped roof on his Fort Worth house. He had left the station at about 4 p.m. that Friday to see how some repair work had gone. Because of that, and because he later chose to watch Channel 5, Walker was probably the last newsman of any significance in this area to find out that the story of the decade in Dallas was unfolding at the airport. “I had been up on the roof,” Walker says. “It was sometime after six, I’m not sure of the exact time, when I walked through the house and heard something on the TV about a plane crash at D/FW and that there would be details on the 10 p.m. newscast.
“I called the station to ask if they had anybody on it. They said ’yeah,’ and I went back up on the roof.” Later, Walker’s children got tired of the baseball game and went outside. Walker flipped the set over to Channel 8, right in the middle of their wall-to-wall coverage. That’s when he found out.
“I thought, my God, it’s a disaster, and left for the station. What happened was that we have these beepers and when they got word of the crash, they beeped everybody. I must have missed my beep when I was on the roof. And when I called the station after hearing that initial report on TV, I guess they thought I was responding to the beep.”
By the time Walker got back to the station on Carpenter Freeway, KRLD’s staff had been applying the full-court press to the story for about two hours and was, in fact, devoting the most concentrated coverage to a story that anybody in the newsroom could remember.
“By 10 p. m., we’d had about 18 or 20 people on the air from various locations,” Walker says. “My job was to try to be a traffic cop.”
Throughout the night, KRLD became the audio link between the chilling drama at the north end of D/FW and listeners around the nation.
Anchor Brad Barton, who was on Highway 114 on his way home from work, picked up word of the crash on his police radio. Within minutes, at about 6:15, his voice was breaking into Brad Sham’s Sports Central broadcast with first details of the disaster. Within a half-hour, a station in Fort Lauder-dale was carrying the KRLD feed. So was WOAI in San Antonio. CBS picked up the KRLD broadcasts periodically and transmitted them nationwide. At some point during the evening, at a Delta press conference in Atlanta, a reporter asked an airline spokesman where he had received his information concerning the number of survivors. “I got that from KRLD in Dallas,” he said.
“When the crash first happened,” Walker says, “the idea was to send all our available people to the critical areas as quickly as possible. This is radio news, and immediacy is the key. When a story like this one breaks, you try to get your feet on the ground, walk and then try to run.”
WBAP ran a live account of the Rangers losing another game to the Blue Jays. Most other outposts on the radio dial, both AM and FM, were spooning out their customary evening fare of Crystal Gayle, Madonna, the Ink Spots and the Goombah brothers.
During the news segments, listeners were fed the most recent dispatches torn from the AP wire. With few exceptions, it was not an evening of triumph for broadcast journalism.
STAN JONES had just finished banging out an eight-hour concerto on his video terminal in the newsroom at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and had retired to nearby Lee’s Lounge for a cool one to celebrate the start of his vacation. Jones, an investigative reporter who’s been at the paper for five-and-a-half years, is typical of the talent that the Star-Telegram has gradually been assembling since the late Seventies. When Capital Cities Communications actually took over operation of the Star-Telegram after purchasing it from the “home-grown and Texas proud” Carter Publications in 1974, the paper’s image was in a state of serious disrepair.
To many, the “Startlegram” of the late Seventies was nothing more than an ossified mouthpiece of the two or three powerful men who ran Fort Worth and the half-dozen others who thought that they did. If anything surfaced that might be potentially unflattering to the oligarchy, the prevailing attitude was “when in doubt, leave it out.” For this and other reasons, the Star-Telegram was consistently rated by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the 10 worst major dailies in the United States.
Such problems do not remedy themselves quickly. But Cap Cities management has continued to recruit aggressive writers and editors, and the Star-Telegram probably turned the corner for good this year when it won a Pulitzer Prize for its expose of the safety standards of the Bell helicopters that cracked up in Vietnam.
STAN JONES was at Lee’s Lounge when Metro editor James Walker called him and told him to get out to D/FW. Sportswriter John Sturbin, leaving on a Piedmont flight to cover Roger Staubach’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had called the paper to report that some guy at the gate was “going nuts and yelling something about a plane crash.” Jones says that he got into his little Pontiac “and hooked ’em” out Highway 121 toward D/FW. “Two police cars passed me going about 85, so I turned on my headlights and fell in behind them. That’s about as fast as my Sunbird would go,” Jones says.
The weird storm that passed north of the runway and sent the huge Delta jet into its confrontation with destiny was gone. When Jones neared the airport, he looked ahead into the clear skies and wondered about the authenticity of the plane crash reports. “But I started listening to KRLD and all of a sudden, I was learning a lot,” Jones says. “The station had somehow intercepted a radio transmission from D/FW to Parkland telling the hospital to be prepared for massive casualties.”
As Jones approached the airport, he was confronted by heavy traffic and a sea of flashing lights. He pulled off the freeway onto a service road, parked his car and decided to get as close to the crash site as he could on foot. By now, he could see the smoke.
“At first, I thought I was about a quarter of a mile away, and then I realized I’d made a serious miscalculation,” Jones says. “It was more like a mile-and-a-half.” And the going wasn’t easy, through mud and tall weeds. “The mud was ankle-deep, and I was wearing a cheap pair of loafers that came off and stuck in the mud with every step I took,” Jones says. “I figured I’d probably be bitten by a snake.”
Finally, he hitched a ride with some men in a jeep and got closer to the wreckage. A chain link fence stopped the jeep, so Jones jumped off, scaled the fence and continued toward the smoldering aircraft. By now he was aware that he’d blundered his way into a place where he wasn’t supposed to be and was “scared to death.”
Once at the actual crash site, Jones encountered a group of paramedics who were walking around through the smoke and ash, apparently looking for bodies and body parts. “I just sort of lowered my head and pretended that I was one of them, terrified that I’d run across God-knows-what.”
Finally, Jones walked to the front section of the L-1011. He saw bodies and “incredible devastation. One body appeared to have been beheaded, but another guy, still strapped in his seat, was obviously dead, but [there was] no dismemberment. He looked so normal.” Jones realized that he was there by “fluke and luck” and knew that once he attempted to take notes he would be forced to leave the area. “I stood there for a long time and took in all that, sort of mesmerized.
“I moved back an appropriate distance and started taking notes,” Jones says. “There were all kinds of personal effects scattered about. A bunch of photographs of a wedding party. That’s when the magnitude of the thing began to sink in.”
Jones trudged back to an area where the rest of the media had congregated and located a vehicle with a ham radio unit. “They patched me in to the paper, and I dictated some notes. The paper told me to write a first-person account of what I had seen.”
A Star-Telegram photographer, Joe Giron, gave Jones a lift back to his Pontiac. “By the time I got back to the paper, I only had 30 minutes to write my story. I could have used another 20 inches, and my lead was Godawful and had to be rewritten,” he says.
James Walker, one of the coordinators of the newsroom scene at the Star-Telegram, thinks that Jones’ first-person account “was the story that put us over the top. We were going after the raw feel of what was going on out there, and that story had it.”
Jones lingered around the newsroom until 1:30 and decided to skip last call at Lee’sLounge. “But I sure had a few when I gothome,” he says. “I didn’t sleep very well thatnight. In fact, I haven’t slept very well eversince.”