Covering the Shootings in Chattanooga – From a Media (My) Perspective

Day 1: 7/16/2015

Like most people probably did, I found out about the “active shooter” on Facebook. I was stunned, this doesn’t happen here. HERE? In Chattanooga? No. This simply does. Not. Happen. Here.

“There’s an officer down. An officer has been shot.” – before the casualties were reported word got out that an officer had been shot. Like anyone else with police officer friends I started sending a flurry of “I know you’re busy, let me know you’re okay when you can, please.” text messages. People that I love and care about were there and I knew it. Thankfully they were safe. (Backstory: I rode with the Sheriffs Department for 6 years and  went through much of my reserve training before being called to do something else, so I know what the law enforcement side of this is like and those are “my boys”.)

“Four casualties.” Four. Four brave, unarmed men. Massacred for no apparent reason.

I got a lot of the initial information from a Facebook group I’m in – one of the women in the group, her husband, is a Marine and was at the site on Amnicola when the shootings occurred. She updated us on what was happening and what had happened long before the media starts releasing any information.

Then the shooters name is released, reports that tie him to ISIS surfacing all over the internet (all of which proved to be false).

Not long after that there are helicopters circling my house. Literally. Hovering over and circling my house. The shooter, who is now dead, lived less than a mile from me and they are searching his house.

I get the call – a journalist friend (who I will refer to as “R”) that I haven’t heard from in what seems like forever calls me up, “We need a photographer in Chattanooga to cover this story with me, you in?”

Of course I was in. (Here’s my chance to win a Pulitzer, right? Riiiight…) Though we were some of the last to get the call and probably the only news outlet that only sent two people (the reporter and I) to cover this huge and multi-faceted story. But, whatever, we’re badasses, we can handle this, right? Riiiiight. The media outlet calls me, asks me to come on board, they send me an email with what they’ll pay me, all I have to do is respond and accept. I am on the job.

Assignment Day 1: Photograph the shooters house. Attend the 11pm press conference at the TVA building downtown.

Of course, by the time we were assigned the job it was dark. The house, and most of the street it was on, had long been secured by police. There was no way we were getting near it. Thankfully I didn’t have to drive far, really, who am I kidding? I could have walked to that house through the woods next to mine in under 8 minutes.  I snapped some photos of the police cars blocking the street (conveniently lit by news van headlights), R interviewed some neighbors who were, honestly, in shock that this kid could have done something like this, and we headed to the press conference.

At this point I can tell you, your mind shifts. You go from a teary-eyed, “How can this happen in my city?” to a “WE HAVE TO GET THE STORY!” journalist, at least somewhat. I am now on a job, on a mission. I must find the truth and tell it.

To enter the press conference we had to go through security – it was easy to tell why they chose the TVA building downtown – they were the only government building that was open 24 hours a day that had space and the ability to run us all through airport-security style. We waited in line, put all of our things through the x-ray machine, walked through the metal detector, proved who we were, were handed a press badge, and then escorted by a security guard to a theatre like room in the basement of the building. Maybe 20 people were in the room. Journalists typing warp speed on laptops, a few news cameras rolling, maybe three other photographers snapping away at the speakers. There we were briefed by Military, FBI, and local officials. Basically they didn’t know much more than we did at that point, nor would I expect them to – or expect them to admit it if they did.

After the press conference we headed to the Marriott – where R, and all of the reporters and other government officials from out of town, were staying, and sat in the lobby typing and uploading at warp speed. News happens fast, y’all. It’s not like what this perfectionist is used to. There’s no time to sit and tweak photos. You simply upload them (with metadata captions that take forever for a newbie) and go.

I spent a lot of time messaging people on Facebook who knew the shooter or the victims (friends, not strangers, Chattanooga is a big small town). We got a lot of inside information that first day.

One story down.

Day 2: 7/17/2015

Assignment 1: I wake up early, check in with the news desk, check in with R to see what we’re doing. I meet him at the site of the shootings on Amnicola Hwy. He interviews people at the site and local businesses surrounding it. I photograph the (small, at that point, just a few flags and some flowers) memorial site, the shooters rented convertible Mustang (from a distance) and the FBI processing evidence there. It’s an eerie feeling, knowing that five men died and an officer was wounded there, seeing the car that the attacker drove through the fence at the Navy Operational Support Center & Marine Corps Reserve Center before opening fire on a group of unarmed soldiers. A place, for those of you who don’t know, that’s inside a local park, mere feet from a playground and jogging/walking paths that people of Chattanooga visit every day. A place where my own children played when they were younger, a place where I’ve taken many early morning walks myself, where the very first sign you see when entering boldly states, “Firearms Prohibited in County Parks”. I’m still in shock that this happened in my city – that it’s a national headline.

Assignment 2: AKA – the “Are you (*#$#*(& kidding me?” assignment.

Being honest, I’ve photographed plenty fluff pieces for the media/magazines before. Feel good, inspirational, heart-warming stories of people overcoming obstacles and cancer and growing up in the worst ways and still managing to make something of themselves. This is the first time I’d ever covered a major story, a tragic story, for the news. I did not even think to expect or anticipate what an assignment like this would entail.

The names of the fallen had been released. Only one of them was a local resident. We were told to go to his house, knock on his door, and try to speak to his widow. I looked at R and said, “Are you ()#*$#$ serious? She lost her husband. Yesterday. HOW? No. Just no.” I felt my palms start to sweat. My heart was pounding. An enormous lump formed in my throat. Doing something like that violated every single thing in my nature, in my being. I am simply not intrusive like that and I could not fathom knocking on this womans door during the worst time in her life.

But it was our job. As R read off the address to me I realized I wouldn’t need to put it in my GPS. I knew that street by heart. I’d traveled up and down it in cars, on my bicycle, on a sled when it had snowed, on foot with childhood friends, and even on my roller skates. I grew up there. I’d been past that house thousands of times in the 11 years we’d lived there from the time I was in 3rd grade until I graduated from High School.

I drove there. Slowly. Which, if you’ve ever ridden in the car with me you’ll know is rare. I do not drive slowly. Ever. My heart pounded. I prayed that the police would be there or a family member or SOMEONE would be standing outside the house to tell us to go away. That we’d never made it to the front door. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to see a Sheriff’s Department car parked in front of that house.

I parked a couple of houses away. I didn’t even want his widow to be able to look out the window and see vultures coming to prey on her at her weakest moment. R got out of the car and spoke with the officer, then with a couple of neighbors. I stayed in the car. I knew we’d have to have proof that we were there so I photographed R talking to the officer from the drivers seat. Other reporters started lining the street. Some stopped and talked to me. Not one of them wanted to knock on that door. They all seemed just as relieved as I was that the officer was stationed there. I’ve never been happier to leave a place in my entire life.

 

Assignment 3: We head over to Lee Hwy, to the recruiting office where the initial shots were fired. News trucks are everywhere with their giant satellites ready to upload and stream news feeds. R and I feel pretty small time – I am armed with my camera, he has a notepad – while most news outlets have teams of 8 or more people – we have each other. We talk to people. I stand in awe looking at the number of bullet holes in the glass, surprised but thankful that there were no casualties there. If you were there, at any point, before they boarded up the windows, you would see that only an act of God saved the people in that building. 59 shots fired through that glass. Only one made contact with a person and, thankfully, he survived. (I’ll tell you a little more about him later).

I photograph the memorial, the people in tears, hugging, praying, strangers comforting each other in ways you don’t normally get to witness. My eyes tear up. I feel like I am part of something of great importance, that I can tell a story, a difficult story, but I can do it well. I am surprised by the number of people there, the amount of flags already planted firmly in the ground. I am proud of my city.
Assignment 4: We head to the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when we pulled in the parking lot. It’s half-full with a handful of vehicles that are clearly marked as news media. I didn’t know how we would be treated when we walked inside. Would we be turned away? Would I feel uncomfortable being there?

We were welcomed with open arms. R walked in ahead of me. The man at the door shook his hand, greeted him, welcomed him and showed him to a room where a church official was speaking about what they knew about the shooter and his family. The man shook my hand, welcomed me, and sent me in the same direction.

Let’s be honest, you can only take so many photos of a man talking. I took a few photos and left the room. I wandered around a bit. I read through some of their brochures and literature. I picked up a copy of the Quran and flipped through it. Another photographer, a man from New York, was over talking to a church official getting permission to photograph the prayer ceremony. I asked for the same. He was told he could go in to the room with the men (they later decided not to allow cameras in to that room). I was told that I could not go in to the room with the men, but that I could go in to the room with the women but that I would need to follow their guidelines and cover my head and my arms. They introduced me to a lovely woman (whose name I will not give) who seemed to be in charge of the womens group. I asked her if she had something I could use to cover my head and my arms. I was given a Hajib. The woman who placed the Hajib on my head smiled softly and said, “wow, you look like us”. She seemed surprised that a pale, redheaded woman looked like she belonged in the room with them.

In the Islamic Temple the rooms are divided. The mens room is enormous. The womens room is the size of an elementary school classroom. There’s a wooden wall dividing the two rooms, the top half of the wall is decorative and allows a little (not much) visibility in to the mens room. I assume it’s mostly so that the sound will carry as most of the women are seated in the floor and the bottom half of the wall is solid wood. For a while we sat silently. Women prayed. People looked sad, fearful, nervous. The sermon was peaceful, but sad, there were many tears being shed as the Imam spoke of how terrible the actions of the shooter were and prays for the families of the fallen. He spoke of peace, love, and focusing on picking up the pieces to move forward. He spoke about continuing to live without fear because of this incident. The women were visibly shaken, especially the younger ones. It hurt my heart that they would have to be fearful simply because of the color of their skin and their religious beliefs. The people there were kind. They were welcoming to me, one of only two press people (and the only one with a camera) allowed in to their prayer service.

Assignment 5: Another press conference. Minutes after we headed toward the press conference we were given a new assignment. Thankfully I was able to call Melissa, one of my most amazing photographers and have her video and photograph the press conference while we headed to the next assignment. She was amazing.

Assignment 6: We headed to the courthouse to pick up a copy of the shooters parents’ divorce papers. (note that I will likely forever call him “the shooter” not by his name, as I don’t feel like he should be immortalized by his horrific actions – he doesn’t deserve to be mentioned). R isn’t from Chattanooga so I was able to navigate a lot of things that, otherwise, likely would have taken him hours to do. I knew exactly where to go to get what was requested (by misfortune of having spent too much time in that courthouse getting divorced myself).

We picked up the papers and I immediately started reading. I’m fairly certain I sat there with my mouth hanging open the entire time. The shooters parents didn’t actually end up getting divorced. The papers were a bit confusing to me as it ended up being an agreement as to what would happen if they did, and a contract stating how their marriage was to be from that point forward. Thankfully I have several friends who are attorneys who were able to help me completely understand the situation as I’d never seen or heard of anything like it. I wanted to find his mother and hug her. The things she endured in that marriage were outrageously awful. I wanted to kick the shooters father in his (probably tiny) man-parts. A part of the story began to unfold, for me, at that moment that contradicted all of the initial reports about ISIS and jihad and extremism and portrayed one of the most troubled family situations I’ve ever heard of. There was no chance of someone growing up with any sort of balance or mental wellbeing in that household. And, no, it does not excuse his actions in any way, shape, or form. Not even a little bit. It simply painted a broader picture of how his life was and what his “normal” must have been like. It explained why he turned to drugs and alcohol. There’s absolutely no excuse for what he’d done. None. You won’t catch me defending his actions.

Day 4: 7/18/2015

Randall Smith, the Navy Corpsman who was wounded in the shootings, passed away.  We visited the memorial sites again. We talked to people. We investigated leads. I talked to people who knew the victims of the shootings. One of which sent me a statement from David Wyatt’s (one of the fallen marines) wife about her husband. It was heart wrenching. I cried.

Here’s what she sent:

“My husband, David Wyatt, was an honorable man. He loved his country, his family, his friends, and his brothers of the Marine Corp.
David knew how to take care of business he worked so hard at every aspect of his life.
I don’t think he truly knows how many lives he has touched. As I read through all the love, gratitude, and memories sent David and I you can feel the love he shared with others. There is a sense of him there in every word written. It gives me a little spec of peace, knowing so many knew the same incredible man I did.
David was truly the greatest man I have ever known, and I was blessed to know him and be his wife. Watching him father our children, was the greatest gift he could ever give me. David knew how to truly love, and when he loved you, it was undeniable.
Family was so important to him. We have the most incredible family, with our two children, our parents, our siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents… Then something happened over the years it kept growing. Every time we pcs’d, every time he deployed, every class he took.. We found new members that were added to our family, and they are forever a part of our family.
He loved his country, he fought for it every day. He had many deployments, unaccompanied tours, and other training exercises, where he was able to shine. He was incredible at his job, and we are blessed as a country that he was.
He died honorably, doing exactly what he was trained to do. I want everyone to know, he is gone, but never forgotten, always cherished, his legacy continues…”

I was sad. My heart hurt for the widows, their parents, and their children. While covering the story and talking to people who knew them I felt oddly connected to these women, I wanted to comfort them. I wanted to do something, anything, to make it better for them.

Assignment: Photograph the shooters house, as the scene had cleared. The shooter lived with his parents in a very nice, upscale, quiet community. It’s actually the neighborhood next to the one I live in. It’s one of those places where the yards are perfectly manicured, the neighbors all know each other, most of them have lived there for many years. It’s a swim/tennis community that’s generally very quiet. Other than the occasional teenager breaking in to cars, nothing bad happens up here.

Melissa photographed the house for me as I was a mile or so down river on a kayak when the call came in and couldn’t get there in the amount of time they wanted me to. The house didn’t fit with the rest. It was poorly maintained with dingy curtains and peeling paint. The yard a little overgrown, hedges untrimmed. It looked sad among all of the other homes in the neighborhood.

Day 5: 7/19/2015

I thought we were going to have an off-day. Nothing new was happening. No new information was coming to light. I was wrong.

Assignment 1: Another “Are you ()*$#$#() kidding me?” assignment.

The desk asked us to go to Randall Smiths house. I wasn’t as nervous this time. All of the Marines had both a soldier and a police officer stationed at their homes to deal with the flood of media. Surely his house would be the same way, right? We drove down to North Georgia to a home that once held a happy family. If you saw the video that circulated on Facebook of Randall Smith singing Frozen songs in the car with his three beautiful daughters you’ve seen what an awesome family they were and what a great father he clearly was. I snapped a few photos of the sign at the entrance to his neighborhood when we pulled in. An incredible tribute from his neighbors. I was certain we would pull up to the house, R would hop out and talk to the officer, and we would drive away.

No such luck. My heart sank when we pulled up to their house. Again, I parked a few houses away. R hopped out and knocked on the door (he didn’t want to, but it was his job to do so). I sat in the car and watched. Nauseous. I didn’t want to be there. I stared at the house. A cooler had been placed by the mailbox. Friends, family, neighbors were putting food and water in it for the family. An abandoned Little Tykes toddler car (the kind you propel with your feet) sat alone in the driveway next to their cars. Toys and bicycles sat in the garage. Every sign of a happy family was there. My heart sank. I could not fathom the hurt, the shock, the thought of her husband, their father, simply going to work one day and never coming home again.

Thankfully no one answered the door. We left.

Assignment 2: Back to the Lee Hwy memorial site. A memorial motorcycle ride was planned to leave from there. Word that We$tb*ro Baptist (I added some symbols to the name so that they don’t get credit for their craptastic actions either) was coming to town to protest the funerals and the memorial site was circulating. We headed down to capture more images of what was going on there and to talk to more people.

I spent the majority of the evening playing detective and finding out where the people from the church that shouldn’t even be referred to as a church were staying and finding out if they were actually in town or not. I found them. Hilariously enough you could see where they had video cameras in their rooms pointing at the parking lot to make sure nobody vandalized their transportation.

Day 6: 7/20/2015

Assignment 1: Because rumor had it (and twitter said it) that WB Baptist was coming to protest the memorial site at Lee Hwy several hundred people took off work and spent their day there. The Red Cross set up a tent handing out water and snacks. The Tennessee Federation of Fire Chaplains brought in restrooms. A tent company came and donated tents to shield the memorial site from the weather. Flags flew from trucks, motorcycles, cars, and a man even came with a bucket truck and flew a flag high over the memorial site. People held signs, flags, and crosses, handed out water, shared sunscreen, and paid tribute to the fallen soldiers. Disabled veterans wearing prosthetics or sitting in wheel chairs came out to show their support.  It was incredible to witness the outpouring of love and support there that day. I saw several people I knew who’d taken the day off work to show their support. There was a lot of love there, in that parking lot. A lot of love.

Assignment 2: We headed back to the site at Amnicola Hwy. The memorial there had grown. People poured in to place flowers and flags. Some people sat there all day to make sure the WB fools didn’t show up there instead. One girl I know sat there all day long in the blazing sun just to be sure. People signed banners and plaques. I even witnessed a cameraman from a local news station lay his camera on the ground to sign one of the memorial plaques.

Day 7: 7/21/2015

We followed up on some leads. The media was starting to thin out a bit at this point but the stream of people flowing through the memorial hadn’t slowed down. People still stood there with flags and children handed out water. The love and support was still overwhelming.

Day 8: 7/22/2015

Assignment: Another press conference. The Attorney general’s office sent me an email the night before stating there would be a press conference at the TVA building again. Security would be tighter. Credentials would be required.

The room was filled. Packed. A far cry from the first press conference. Cameras everywhere streaming live, reporters typing on laptops faster than I could even think. New information released about the shooter and the leads they were following up. But still no real answers as to why. R and I sat in a coffee shop and uploaded notes and photos while discussing our own theories as to the reasons why.

Day 9: 7/23/2015

We spoke to a man who had some inside information (who asked not to be named) who told us that the Marine wounded at the Recruitment center had actually been out walking around at the memorial the day before. Just days after being shot in the thigh and knee he was out shaking hands never revealing who he was. That’s a hero. An admirable man.

We were also given more details about how the shooting at that site occurred. Apparently the shooter pulled up, circled around in front of the building and fired in to the windows of one office. Then he backed up about 20 feet and started firing in to the other part of the building before taking off and driving 105mph to the site on Amnicola. He did everything with intention. He clearly had a plan.

Day 10: 7/24/2015

Assignment: David Wyatt’s funeral.

I’m not sure I can even accurately describe what this day was like.

We drove there early, around 10am, as I knew parking would be scarce and roads would be closed off for the procession. There were already people lining the streets. Men, women, children – all holding flags and signs and banners. It was a Friday morning, meaning the majority of people there likely took the day off work to be there. Bikers lines the street outside the church holding flags and creating a human wall. Dignitaries, politicians, local and national government officials, members of our military, and friends and family of David Wyatt poured in to the church. So many people that I don’t see how they even held them all in the sanctuary.

Press was relegated to a small roped off area near the parking lot. Understandably, as I’m sure it could have been chaotic otherwise. I spent much of the next couple of hours photographing people coming and going and chatting with the police officer assigned to keep us in line and a Getty photographer, who was likely the nicest media person I met in this entire experience.

I didn’t see the actual funeral service inside the church, but what I saw outside it was an incredible display of loyalty, patriotism, and kindness. The hearse and family were escorted by more motorcycle police than I knew we even had in this area. The Marine pallbearers removed the casket and carried it in to the church. The family poured out of the limousines, their expressions were pained, as you’d expect them to be. I did capture some rather emotional photos of David Wyatt’s wife and children during this time. You won’t see the the photos unless I manage to get them to her and she shares them. They’re too personal for me to share (apparently I am not cut out for this kind of journalism). After the crowd went inside I went to the car with my new friend from Getty where he let me use his wireless hotspot to upload my photos. That’s when I noticed the photos of his daughter, the look on her face, and I simply couldn’t bring myself to upload those, they were too personal. They’ve sat safely on my hard drive ever since. I’m the only person who has seen them.

A bit before the end of the service we drove to the National Cemetery where David Wyatt was to be buried for the service there. By now the streets were lined with people. I’m not talking a few people, I’m talking hundreds, possibly thousands of people lined the 13 mile stretch from the church to the cemetery. Flags, everywhere. At least a dozen people brought cranes, fire trucks, or bucket trucks from which they draped giant flags over the route.  People stood out there for hours that day to show their support and their love. It was one of the most beautiful and powerful things I’ve ever witnessed. Chattanooga came together that day for David Wyatt and his family.

We arrived at the National Cemetery. People were everywhere. Boy Scouts were lined all along the cemetery path as David Wyatt had been an Eagle Scout.

The press section may have been in one of the worst possible places to capture anything. We waited there for hours for the procession to come through. A long stream of bikers, hundreds of them, came ahead of the procession. All of the bikers left their motorcycles and joined in lining the path. We were allowed to photograph the processional coming through. As families pulled up we were told that the family did not wish to be photographed, which gave me a great deal of relief that I didn’t upload all of the photos I’d taken at the church service. We were asked to put down our cameras, the news stations were asked to turn their video cameras around. They all complied, except for the NBC cameraman who argued with them and refused and two rogue photographers. They had to place a Naval Officer in front of his camera to block his feed.

We couldn’t see the service from where we were. I imagine it was heartbreaking for the friends and family. I was glad that (most of) the press complied with the wishes of the family. The only story to be told that day was that a hero died too young and that a family, an entire city, was grieving.

 

In summary… Covering this story was an honor in many ways but was also stressful, heart wrenching,  and gave me a completely different perspective of the sacrifices some people make for our country and safety. I witnessed the best of humanity along with the worst. I saw both deep sadness and loss and the joining of a community in a way I never expected. I knew I lived in a great city, but I never imagined how great it was before this tragedy. I’ve never been so proud of our men in blue. Our police officers couldn’t have done a better job that day or the days that followed. The Corpsmen and Sailors who risked their lives to warn the people in the park, to get each other safely out of that building, our officers who ran in to that building to try to save the lives of the soldiers still inside… all of them risked their lives for us that day. Some of them didn’t make it out. The Chattanooga Five, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells and Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith will not be forgotten. Not ever, not by me, not by the people of this great city. Injured in the shootings, Officer Pedigo, and the unnamed soldier shot at the recruiting center are heroes who will stay in our hearts and in our prayers along with the families of the fallen. So many hearts were broken and lives shattered on July 16, 2015. Our sense of safety was diminished. But our sense of community couldn’t be stronger.

Below you can see many of the photos I captured during those 10 days. I did not include photos of the immediate families or any of the houses, otherwise a bit of each assignment is represented.

#noogastrong from Melody Hood on Vimeo.

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