“I was crying.”
Nate Rott is a correspondent on NPR’s National Desk focused on environmental issues and the American West. In 2013, he was sent to report on the death of 19 firefighters killed in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill fire. As a former wildland firefighter, Rott drew on personal knowledge and his own moral compass to find and tell a story that he still considers one of the most meaningful in his career.
As told to Clarise LarsonThe family was crying.
We walked through the house to their backyard. There was this little raised porch attached to the back of the house. There was a sign on the back wall of it. One of them said ‘I’d rather die in my boots than die in a suit.’ Another said ‘Happily ever after.’
Now I was crying.
In 2013, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died when they were caught in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. When that happened, I had just finished a stretch of firefighting and was working as a reporter. I was a temp at NPR, and was told, well, you need to profile a victim. Usually that means use a LexisNexis search, call the family and see what you can get.
But 19 of these guys died. I know how the fire community is: For somebody to die in a fire like that, there had to be a bad decision. But nobody wants to say that about tragedy, because they’re heroes.
Approaching sources with respect
I have a very strong no-call, no-knock ethic. And I have a pretty firm rule that if somebody says they’re not interested in being part of a story, I don’t push them. I don’t believe that if I talk to somebody and they have an incredible story to tell and I craft the most exemplary piece of journalism, it will prevent the next shooting or will it prevent another fire from burning up the town. I am cynical about that at this point.
So instead I went to the fire station where all those guys were based and just walked around the neighborhood, wondering what were the places these guys would have gone? I ended up going to a burrito shop where these guys went all the time, and I talked to somebody there and they suggested I go to the gym down the street. A woman working out there was best friends with the wife of one of the guys who died in the fire.
I gave her my number and told her to give it to her friend — no pressure, but if she wants to talk she can shoot me a text or give me a call. She called.
With situations like this, I simply say, “Can you do me a favor? I know this is hard. But could you walk me through the last couple of days?” That allows them to get to set the rules of the conversation about how much detail they want to give.
I went over to her house the next day. Both of the guy’s parents were there, along with his wife and her child from a previous relationship. I still remember that she was watering the plants in the front yard. She was clearly trying to just do something. She said, “Plants still have to get water,” even though I knew she was not okay.
I will say that that was one of the few times I’ve covered a tragedy or a traumatic event where I felt like my presence as a reporter did something good. It was very easy to imagine being the person who got stuck in a bad spot. My parents. My wife. It was just awful. It was really, really hard.
I mean, we’re talking about how they’re feeling about it or talking about, you know, the specific memories or whatever. That was just not a thing they had done yet.
But, me being there and asking those questions — things like “How did you guys meet?” — if she told that story, the parents would say they didn’t know that. The firefighter’s father then told a story. On Father’s Day his son called and said how excited he was about hi upcoming marraige. He basically was like, “I was really nervous about marrying somebody with a kid, but I’m so excited to be a dad.”
The wife didn’t know that.
I just felt they were saying all these things that we don’t usually tell each other, even in intimate relationships. Know what I mean?
The firefighter’s mom asked that I send the full, unedited recording of the whole exchange. I don’t know what they did with it, but I hope it was for good. But that really got me crying.
Bearing witness without pushing
Reporting, it can feel very predatory. After this, I had to come to a place where I felt like I had a moral or ethical standard that I would hold myself to. I did a lot of journaling and thoughts about it because otherwise, it felt like the Wild West.
I remember a super veteran reporter, who’s covered all sorts of shit for decades, was crying during a flight in front of our entire national desk after a shooting we just covered. He just basically said, “I felt like a leech. It made me feel like less of a human being.”
If I’m making things worse for people or for myself, I don’t push it.
I’ve covered something like nine mass shootings at this point. Gore and blood on the streets of the shooting in Las Vegas — you know the one. There are going to be times when you’re going to have to do stuff you don’t want to do. That’s true in any job.
Being there doesn’t fix any of the shit those people have to live with. But I truly believe it’s important to bear witness and remember the truth… even if it sucks.
Clarise Larson is studying journalism at the University of Montana, where she is the arts and culture editor at the Montana Kaimin, the independent student-run newspaper. A native of Minnesota. she loves wool socks, fluffy dogs and anything with gluten.