TV station balances grief, journalism after on-air shooting
The colleagues of two journalists shot to death on live television returned to their morning show Thursday with memories, tears and a determination to carry on.
WDBJ-TV's "Mornin'" show opened with images of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, with the words "In Memory."
"We come to you with heavy hearts. Two of our own were shot during a live shot yesterday morning," said Kim McBroom, the anchor whose open-mouthed shock was seen around the world Wednesday after Ward's camera recorded the fatal attack by a disgruntled former colleague.
Perhaps the most poignant segment came when McBroom, weatherman Leo Hirsbrunner and an anchor from a sister station who came to help out joined hands for a moment of silence at 6:45 a.m., 24 hours after the shots rang out.
"We are approaching a moment that none of us will ever forget," McBroom said, her voice faltering as the show went silent.
On-camera, the team mostly kept its composure throughout the broadcast. Off-camera, their struggle was more visible. Hirsbrunner dabbed his eyes, tried to wave away tears and bent down at one point, hands on his knees, to gather himself during a commercial.
"It's not easy," McBroom said during another break, after her voice broke while reading a statement from Parker's family.
Members of the team supported each other throughout.
"I don't know how to do the weather on a day like this," Hirsbrunner said.
"Good job, partner," McBroom told him. "We're going to get through this together."
The husband of Vicki Gardner, who was wounded by the gunman as Parker and Ward interviewed her for a tourism story, showed up to tell viewers that she was recovering.
And Parker's boyfriend, WDBJ anchor Chris Hurst, appeared for a short interview.
"Alison, what great things she could have done," Hurst said, telling viewers he needs some time away from his night-time anchor role.
"You won't be seeing me in my normal position for, who really knows how long. But hopefully not too long because Alison would want me back," he said.
The show featured a series of news segments on the shooting, as well as images of Ward and Parker's assignments together, and McBroom thanked Steve Grant, who arrived from a station in Missouri to help.
Ward's family members said they weren't ready to discuss the tragedy publicly, but his colleagues warmly remembered the cameraman. Hirsbrunner shared anecdotes about Ward's practical jokes, including covertly placing candy wrappers on the desk that the weatherman saw while delivering his segments.
Hirsbrunner said he found one Thursday: "I still have one over there this morning, so that kind of touches me here."
Both Parker, 24, and Ward, 27, grew up in the Roanoke area, attended high school there and later interned at the station. After Parker's internship, she moved to a smaller market in Jacksonville, North Carolina, before returning to WDBJ.
Ward was engaged to station producer Melissa Ott, who was marking her last day at the station Wednesday and saw the shootings live from the control room. Ward had planned to move with her as she took a new job in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hurst recalled how people reacted to Ward's voice. "It could light up a room; a deep bass baritone voice, but with a kindness and joy behind it," he said.
He also said that Parker had been planning to interview a man who was losing his wife, for a story on hospice care.
"We both agreed -- wouldn't that just be the worst, to lose the one you love," he said.
The station showed concern for the thousands of viewers whose morning routines were suddenly disrupted by horror by interviewing a grief expert for a segment on coping with tragedy.
Dr. Thomas Milam talked about the importance of giving people space to grieve, and comforting children who may have seen the killings. He praised WDBJ staffers for showing that it's OK to be overcome with grief in times of tragedy.
"This is a family here," Milam said. "And it's not something that's easily created. Obviously, that's the culture of this place, that it's not just a business or an organization, but it is a family."
As the two-hour show went on , a memorial grew outside the station, with balloons, flowers, candles and even a Virginia Tech sweatshirt, honoring Ward's stalwart devotion to his alma mater. TV trucks from all over lined up to do their own stories on the station.
After the show closed, McBroom and Hirsbrunner cried and hugged at length. Other staffers were somber.
The mood had been so different the day before. To celebrate Ott's last workday, Parker had brought balloons, Ward a floral arrangement and McBroom a cake. They had a small ceremony just before Ward and Parker left for their live spot, McBroom said.
The balloons, emblazoned with "Congrats," still floated above Ott's desk on Thursday.
"I hope that you got to know them a little better over the last two hours," McBroom told The Associated Press, the only outside organization allowed in the newsroom. "That's all we could do, is share stories."