I’ve been trying to go to bed earlier. Trying to log-off, disconnect and disengage.
On Wednesday, June 17th, I fell asleep at 9:00.
At the same time, 209 miles away from my bed, Dylann Storm Roof shot and killed nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
I wrote this while watching his bond hearing on Friday, June 19th.
I woke up at 5:00 AM Thursday feeling refreshed and ready for a new day working as an intern at WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina. I checked my phone before I got out of bed (always) and found a screen-full of notifications about the Charleston church shooting.
That morning while I went through my normal routine the families and victims were in the back of my mind. I watched a few networks and local channels that morning to see how the news was being covered. I knew it would be a busy day for the station.
On the way to work my cousin asked if I would get to go out on a story that day. I usually work with anchor Molly Grantham on Thursdays but she was on vacation and I was going out with a reporter instead.
It’s the first time I’d thought about my role in the news. I told her I’d probably have to stay at the station and help since there was breaking news nearby. I could have never guessed I would be pushing through reporters trying to get a shot of the killer in just a few hours.
I arrived at the station and immediately took my seat against the wall at the morning meeting (that’s when the newscasts are planned for the day). Producers assigned stories to the reporters who were not already on the way to Charleston to get the latest on the shooting. It’s really all anyone could talk about.
Our news director got emotional halfway in. He said he knew that the victims had opened their arms and hearts to Roof accepting him and even praying and worshiping with him. I looked down at my shoes while he shared his own experience and encouraged his team to remember that side of the story.
Most people were asking, “why?” – Why would someone do this?
I could only think, “how?” – How could someone do this?
At the time police were still looking for Roof. He had not been seen since he left the church that night. WBTV had reporters in Charleston and Columbia (where Roof was from).
Not all reporters were sent to cover the shooting. I was sent with Kristen Hampton to cover a drowning in York County, South Carolina.
For the hour-long drive we listened to police scanners and talked about the shooting. We threw around places Roof could possibly be hiding. Kristen bet me he would be found in North Carolina.
She was right.
Three miles out from the site of drowning we got a call. All the producer had to say was, “Shelby.”
“Are you buckled?” Kristen asked before she sped away.
We arrived in Shelby, North Carolina and set up our cameras across the street from where police had surrounded Roof’s car. The shooter was already at police department where another WBTV reporter was waiting.
As soon as I got out of the car Kristen asked me if I could shoot video. Reporting is like acting: never say no. I grabbed the camera and went to ask people what they saw and how they felt.
One man, David Jones, told me he drove up to his rental property that was across the street from Plato Lee Road on Highway 74, where they arrested Roof. His wife grew up in the house and they could not believe that they found this man beside her childhood home.
It was 100 degrees. I was drenched in sweat. My hair was stuck to my scalp, my mascara was to my cheeks and my feet were red and swelling out of my flats.
I stood in the dirt and watched the police work across the street. The sun was beating down on our black camera equipment and my pale shoulders. (For the record, Kristen asked me if I wanted sunscreen and I said no.)
Bugs had eaten the back of my legs and I was bleeding a little from one of the bites. I wiped off the blood with a paper towel that turned black from the dirt that was covering my skin.
A clean freak, I had never been happier to be disgusting.
Police and federal officers inspected Roof’s car. I streamed video live from Periscope so viewers could see what was happening at the scene.
David also told me that police had seen a front license plate on the car with confederate flags on it. That information was not confirmed yet.
From across the street I watched next to other media outlets while the killer’s car was loaded on a tow truck and pulled away with a police escort. As it turned a corner I got a shot of that front license plate.
Kristen and I both wanted to know more about it. I ferociously googled “three confederate flags logo,” and “three confederate flags license plate.”
I found a picture of the exact plate on Roof’s car. We tweeted it out. It’s been retweeted 254 times and favorited by 135 people.
It felt great to contribute.
Once the car was gone the scene was dead. We sped off to the Shelby Police Department.
Two words: Media mania.
Cameras, photographers, reporters, live trucks, backpacks, anchors, police officers, FBI agents, by-standers and… me.
It was chaos, but it was beautiful.
As we waited for a press conference the temperatures rose. I was out of water and fading fast (the true sign of a rookie reporter). Kristen told me to watch the front door in case they brought Roof out of it.
It was critical that we get his walk shot. Everybody wanted to be there when police showed the world the killer for the first time.
I could tell I was getting swept away by the “news side” of the shooting. I found myself focusing on getting the best shot or the latest information and forgetting about what really happened. That all changed when I saw Roof for the first time.
I was trying to get close to the door so I could get a tight shot of Roof as police escorted him to the squad car. I pushed and shoved my way between hefty men with cameras and aggressive veteran reporters. I only had my cell phone.
As Roof walked out of the police department I felt sick to my stomach. My heart dropped and I was on the verge of tears. I had so many emotions I could not even name them.
I was mad at him. I was sad for the families of his victims. I was sick thinking about him praying with those people and then shooting them. I was confused that someone my age, 21, could do that.
The police car drove away and I followed Roof with my eyes. He kept his head down slumped in the back seat. He looked like a ragdoll, not like a human.
A live shot later we were off to the airport. Roof was going to be transported back to Charleston on a plane. He waived his right to extradition at his first hearing. I was already back in reporter mode.
We waited outside the airport gate for about an hour, we were going live at 6:00.
I stuck my camera lens through the gate and zoomed on the aircraft door for a tight shot on Roof’s face.
I was secretly dreading having to see him again.
Sky 3, the station’s helicopter was circling the area and following the caravan from the courthouse to the airport. When they arrived I tried not to get emotional again but I knew it would be hard.
Roof got out of the police car in a black and white-striped jumpsuit, bulletproof vest and orange rubber flip-flops.
Police escorted him to the steps of the plane, removed the vest and put shackles on him. I tried to keep my hand steady as I zoomed in on his hands as they were bound together. It was still so hard to watch but I knew that right then, at that moment, my job was to get the shot. I could be upset later.
We are told in school that when journalism starts taking a toll on our soul we need to get out, but yesterday after watching the events of the Charleston church shooting unfold I couldn’t imagine that ever happening.
I talked to Kristen and Molly about everything that happened and how I felt. They said they still feel emotional covering these stories but it changes. All I could think about was that boy and how he could do what he did.
I certainly didn’t go to bed early last night. Even though I was exhausted I stayed awake and watched the news. I saw WBTV’s footage from the day used in network newscasts and was proud that I had been part of such excellent coverage.
By sheer chance I was able to cover a national story as an intern.
I feel lucky and still have adrenaline pumping through my body from yesterday’s excitement. It wears off a little more every hour and I tear up thinking about the victims, the shooting, the crime scene, Roof’s face and can’t stop thinking about the tragedy.
I realize that this career will be hard but there’s something in my heart that tells me it will be rewarding. As difficult as it was to push my emotions aside and report the facts, I know that it has to be done and in some way it will help someone.
My thoughts and prayers are with Charleston.