How does a sleepy weeknight turn into an adrenaline-fueled, sleep-deprived, no-holds-barred marathon? It begins with a flicker of information, perhaps five words: "A plane hit a house." And it grows from there.
Coverage of the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Express Flight 3407, one of the biggest local news events in recent history, involved almost all of The News' 180-member newsroom. For the first time in this newspaper's 129-year history, a huge breaking story was expressed not only in traditional print, but also using the Internet's immediacy, worldwide reach and multimedia power.
For me, word came only 12 minutes after the crash, by way of a 10:32 p.m. cell phone call from News photographer Harry Scull, who lives not far from the Clarence Center crash site. Scull was already on his way, and his hustle paid off: His stunning photograph of the flaming wreckage made the deadline for the morning paper, spread over six columns on the front page. (Four of a possible five morning editions on Friday carried the crash story and photograph, thanks to the nightside news staff's skills.)
City Hall reporter Brian Meyer had gone to bed when his editor called at 12:10 a.m. By 12:45, Meyer was at Clarence Town Hall in a situation he described as "complete chaos." He called in notes for a Web story and then began recording and producing audio for our videos.
Business reporter Sharon Linstedt heard a brief TV report of an accident at home on the 11 o'clock news, but it didn't sound right.
"TV was saying it was a small plane, but I knew from the location it was the approach to BNIA [Buffalo Niagara International Airport] and likely a commercial flight." She headed to Erie County Medical Center, where emergency triage was being taken down. "There were no survivors to treat."
She then drove to the airport, found family members and soon was calling in her notes. By 4 a.m., Linstedt had become a major source of information for the world, providing audio interviews for NBC, MSNBC, ABC and CBS. Linstedt was also the first to report that 9/1 1 activist Beverly Eckert was one of the victims.
Photographer Bill Wippert, carrying video and still cameras, scrambled in the dark through Clarence fields to within 75 yards of the blazing crash site. "I thought I was walking through slushy snow. Then I looked down and realized it was firefighting foam and jet fuel."
Deputy Managing Editor Stan Evans immediately began deploying reporters. Assistant Managing Editor John Neville arrived to supervise the constantly changing Web operation.
The first story went up at 11:15 p.m., a bit behind television. But after that, the size and experience of our news staff made buffalonews.com the place to go for information.
The main story had 18 major revisions by noon, and dozens of smaller changes: Shortly after 3 a.m. we posted the story that Eckert was aboard the plane. Ten minutes later we posted a story on recent commercial plane crashes. At 5:40 a.m. we added another major story, reporting that shortly after the crash the tower warned other aircraft to watch out for icing.
A photo gallery was online at 1:45 a.m.; the audio of the last transmissions from Flight 3407 was online at 4:15. Traffic to the Web site was massive: In six days, it drew more than 6.5 million page views.
The morning after the crash, we decided to put together a 10-page special section for the next day, including individual profiles of each victim. As the week went on, our attention turned to enterprise reporting -- probing for the reasons behind the tragic crash.
In short, this has been an all-out effort, one that has displayed the skills and depth of a remarkable news staff.
I'm proud of them, not only for their talent and dedication, but also for their humanity. Every journalist here, I know, is fully aware that, for the victims' family and friends, this is not a "news story" at all, but a horrifying personal loss.