David Montero’s voice trails off. “I just feel like there are obvious ones I’m missing. It’s been a lot…”
If Montero stumbles as he ticks off the number of mass shootings he’s covered since 2012, it’s understandable. When an armed man opened fire at a crowded Walmart in El Paso, Texas on August 3, the tally had reached nearly a dozen. “It’s sad there have been so many,” he says.
America’s epidemic of mass shootings — 2,199 since a gunman opened fire in an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, killing 20 children, six adults and himself in December, 2012 — has left more than 2,747 dead and 9,200 injured, according to an analysis by Vox. Vox based its analysis on data form the Gun Violence Archive, which considers a mass shooting one in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, are killed or wounded.
Montero has helped cover more than his share of the people on the dark side of the trigger, including Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people and injured more than 400 others as he fired from a casino hotel room overlooking a country music festival in Las Vegas.
But he’s more drawn to the people who often go unnoticed in the glare of the news, including relatives and friends of the victims, who suffer collateral damage from the main event. People like Michael Grady, the pastor of a tiny church in El Paso. Grady’s 33-year-old daughter, Michelle, was seriously wounded in the El Paso attack.As a veteran national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, Montero has considerable leeway in choosing his story focus, approach and subjects when he arrives on the scene of a mass shooting. “My editors tell me a lot of times to just go find a story that I would want to read, something with a unique angle.” Emblematic of that is his profile of Grady. “As his daughter lay in a pool of blood in an El Paso Walmart, a pastor held fast to his faith,” was published four days after a shooter killed 22 people and injured 23 others at a crowded Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 3.
In the space of four hours, Montero produced a compelling deadline narrative with an engine that follows Grady from the time he learned his daughter was injured until a moment when he stands outside her hospital door, and learns her recovery from horrific injuries remains uncertain.
“I’ve always been interested in the arc of recovery from a difficult circumstance,” says Montero. “And so I think I gravitated toward the victim’s side, because I want to see how those journeys look and understand it, feel it and communicate it. How do you go forward?”
Montero’s approach to reporting and writing is influenced by his avid interest in fiction, especially filmmaking. “It helps you exercise your empathy muscle better because you can understand people’s points of view and perspectives. It helps you ask better questions when you’re out there,” he told me by phone from Las Vegas, where he is based.
As a reporter and interviewer, he is always on the lookout for visual details, like the Dominoe’s games Grady had played with his daughter when she was young, and pizza boxes now scattered about a hospital waiting room. As a writer, he girds his stories with strong verbs and moments of action that build the immersive experience. After Grady and his wife found their daughter lying in a pool of blood minutes after the shooting, Montero writes, they:
… lifted her body onto a Walmart shopping cart used for oversized items and wheeled her out to an ambulance. They waited. Time felt both stretched and condensed. Things needed to move faster, Grady thought. After an emergency crew got Michelle into an ambulance, his wife rode with her. He ran — chest heaving — back to the car, then sped toward University Medical Center of El Paso.
Montero gleaned many of the details for his deadline narrative during a two-hour interview in a crowded hospital room, sitting side-by-side with Grady, taking notes on his laptop as they spoke. When they were finished talking, he asked the pastor if he could accompany him to his daughter’s room where he stood aside. “I wanted to be able to see what he’s been seeing for the last couple of days.” Montero described Grady’s walk to the ICU as if it were a tracking shot in a movie, a technique used by some of his favorite filmmakers: Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.
After more than two days there, he knew his way around the byzantine hallways of the hospital. Up the elevator. Past two sets of double doors. Beyond the table strewn with empty pizza boxes and a roomful of people who were also waiting. The nurses smiled or nodded as he walked by. Tragedy had bred familiarity.
After his hospital reporting, and with the clock ticking toward his deadline, Montero headed to a Starbucks. He wrote the 1,183 word story in another two hours. His sentences are lean, the paragraphs usually just one or two sentences long; it’s an effective approach that keeps the tension high. He relies on repetition — The pastor had never prayed so fervently…the pastor prayed…Grady prayed — that echoes the rhythm of the pastor’s sermons. “He has a cadence when he talks,” Montero said, “so I was trying to channel that to help the reader be closer to him and his personality and style.”
Now Montero waits for the moment another mass shooter will start firing somewhere. After nearly a dozen such assignments, he feels “sad, somewhat disillusioned. They’re not stopping.” He’s not sure he wants to go next time.We reached out to Montero by phone and email to learn how he located the pastor amid the chaos that surrounded the El Paso shootings, how he decided which details to include about Michelle Grady’s injuries, and why he broke the narrative thread for Grady’s backstory. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you do a story about Michael Grady?
I had a few contacts in El Paso from the brief time I worked there in 2010 and one of them was U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar. I had been trying to reach her for a few comments on what she had seen when visiting patients in the hospital when she told me about a friend of hers who was a pastor. She said he had been at the hospital as his daughter fought to survive after suffering multiple gunshot wounds. I was immediately struck by the idea of a pastor whose faith may be tested in this moment. I have covered several mass shootings and I have always been interested in the idea of faith and religion intersecting like this — and this one seemed to be so personal.
Was it difficult to persuade him to cooperate?
I didn’t know if he would do it when I asked Escobar to ask on my behalf. She told me it was still touch-and-go if his daughter would make it and I might need to wait. But the next day — around noon — she texted me and said he was OK to talk with me and sent me his cell phone number. I left him a message immediately and he called back about an hour later. He agreed to meet me at the hospital to talk about it that afternoon. It was intense at times as well as emotional. But it was also illuminating.
His daughter suffered horrific wounds in the shooting. You provide some graphic details, but overall were restrained in describing them? Why?
I felt it was important to say where she was struck. But I didn’t want to slow the story down by getting into the graphic details of the injuries. It seemed pretty clear that the places she was shot demonstrated the randomness of the shooting, but also that they were serious wounds.
The paragraph that traces the pastor’s steps through the hospital is so detailed it puts the reader with him on the path. How were you able to write that?
I’m always looking for the everyday details but also details that illustrate a larger point. The pizza boxes tell the reader “people have been here a long time and aren’t leaving.” Doors are mundane – until they’re opening up hallways to rooms where your loved ones are fighting for their lives. It’s about putting the reader in familiar trappings amid extraordinary circumstances.
In this, and your story a short while later about the Walmart manager who seeks comfort by going to a baseball game, you avoid the “hero” narrative so common in stories after tragedies. Was this a conscious decision? I don’t know that I look for archetypes in stories. People are who they are. In fact, I try to avoid having any preconceived notions about who they are based on title or experience or anything. I’m more interested in them as a person or an individual. People are complicated and I don’t want to smooth that out — I want that to be real and identifiable. So I ask questions about everything in their lives — deep spiritual questions or what kind of cereal they eat and why. I ask about birthdays, holidays and how they celebrate them. What kind of music they listen to or who their favorite sports team is. Normal, everyday stuff. All of those are usually entry ways into rounding out a person in a story; it makes them feel more real to the reader. At least that’s how I’ve always wanted to read stories about people in difficult circumstances.
Why did you approach these stories the way you did?
These are difficult events. I’ve covered, in some capacity, about 12 mass shootings. I have found that there are, sadly, familiar rhythms to the news cycle on them, but I’ve also found each is as unique as a fingerprint. Each life that was lost was an individual, and their families and friends were real people living real lives. And so I want to tell the story faithfully about each person going through this horrible moment so readers understand the gravity of what was lost on that day. I don’t want it to be an abstraction where people can move on quickly. I want the people I write about to be remembered.
Why did you decide to pull out of the narrative briefly to describe the pastor’s’ background and what he would be doing on a normal Sunday morning?
I’ve always believed that abnormal can’t be fully realized unless the normal is put up against it for context. I wondered what his day would have looked like if this hadn’t happened. Oddly, one of the most influential writers in my journalism career is Stephen King. It may sound strange, but what I learned from reading a lot of King was that what made so many of his stories scary was that they took place amid the normal trappings of life. In these tragic stories, people were living normal lives before the horrible happened and I wanted the reader to connect with the story that way.
What role did your editors play?
Alan Zarembo, a national editor, was key. First, deciding to drop a quote from Escobar and make it just Grady through the story. And second, not tipping the hand about Michelle’s survival too high up so the reader could feel the stakes, too.
How did you get access to the hospital, so close to Grady’s daughter’s room?
Near the end of the interview, after we had talked for a while, he was planning to go back up and see how she was doing. So I respectfully asked if I might just go up with him, even if it was just for a few moments. I also explained to him why — that I wanted readers to know what he was seeing every day in this new place that had become his family’s home for a while.
Were you able to see her?
He wanted to check to see if she was OK first before letting me enter the room. When he pulled the curtain back a little bit, I was directly behind him and I caught a very brief glance of her – not even her face, just an arm. It was all inadvertent. He was being protective of her and I wasn’t trying to sneak a glance – it just kind of happened that I caught a glimpse, maybe two seconds at the most. That’s when he turned to me and said we couldn’t go into the room because she was upset and crying. I respected that and we spoke briefly at the door before I left.
The ending is very sad, yet unresolved. Why?
I felt the end of the story also needed to convey a beginning of sorts — that the reader understood that this was now the start of a long, difficult journey going forward and the end is uncertain.
Was it difficult to keep the story from being overly emotional?
I’m not actively trying to keep my emotions in check because if I’m thinking about that, I’m not concentrating on what they’re saying or doing. And listening is the most important and respectful thing you can do in that moment. But I know when I feel stuff and that’s when I start to find where the story is. The impact for me often comes after. I still think about David and Cecil, who were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. I still think about Emilie Parker, who was killed at Sandy Hook, and about talking with her family before and after the funeral. Or Jordyn Rivera’s parents, who I met after the shooting in Las Vegas.
I try to bring as much empathy as I can to these stories and try to be as authentic as possible with the people going through the trauma. I don’t want it to be superficial or cliché. People’s lives and stories deserve more than that.