Saturday Morning in Stanton Heights

By now, you have all read, heard or see the tragedy in Stanton Heights: the death of three city police officers in an encounter with Richard Poplawski at his home in Stanton Heights. The details will continue to emerge in this tragedy as the days and weeks go on.

Right now, I just want to take the time to tell you one person’s story. My own. A morning which began for me leaving town at 7am, bound for Ohio University to speak with journalism students at my alma mater. I brought my suit and a change of clothes, wearing just jeans, a golf shirt and a leather jacket … and my glasses. Before I passed Bridgeville, I got a call from my office. They needed to get a reporter ASAP to a shooting in Stanton Heights and I was the person they reached. I turned around.

A half hour later, I arrived at the corner of Stanton and Woodbine. As I walked towards Fairfield Street and the disturbance, I witnesses dozens of officers in bullet-proff vests. They were armed with all sorts of weapons and running down the street. Moments later, the gunfire began. Lots of gunfire. They say it sounds like firecrackers going off … and initially it did. But as this barrage went on for 10-15 minutes, it was clear this was gunfire … and quite  a bit.

I have been asked whether I was scared by the shots … and the answer is no. I guess I realized that this was a major story and whatever “reporter” is inside of me came out. I got together with my photographer Ken Murray and we went to work. I asked neighbors, police, anybody I could find for information on what happened and what was going on. Some people gave me the polite brush-off. Others were not so polite.

It was like putting together a puzzle. We got brief bits from people on the name of the shooter, his family and how the officers were doing that initially responded to the call. While accumulating information, we needed to be very careful and very sensitive. Even if you instincts and all evidence at the scene told you the officers were dead, you needed to be sure before saying anything.

We also realized that our broadcast was playing a role in the incident. Officials told us to back up from the street entrance because the shooter could see our broadcast and gauge where police where. In essence, he had his back covered by our broadcast so we complied.

Still, you did not need to be on top of the scene to know what was going. To witness the officers frustration at not being able to assist their comrades who had fallen and to see the family of Poplawski agonize and wonder why he was doing this.

A Saturday at my alma mater quickly turned into a day in the city, following a story that took twists and turns every minute. A day that did not end until 7pm that evening following our last broadcast from Pittsburgh Police headquarters.

I wanted to take this moment to tell you covering something of this magnitude does not happen in a vacuum. It takes dedicated producers and newsroom leaders back here at the station. It takes reporters and photographers on the scene gathering information … sometimes amid gunfire. It also takes an anchor, and mother-to-be,  like Janelle Hall who kept her cool and calmly guided viewers through four hours or live coverage. It takes interns willing to do the grunt work. I could not be prouder of my colleagues on this most difficult days.

As for me, I think I will be forever changed being among the first on the scene to witness this tragedy. My background is sports … and that’s what I did for 10 years in Pittsburgh. I have spent three years as a news anchor,  learning along the way. However, this was an education unlike any other .. and in many ways, if not for my sports background I would not have been able to do my job. Years of ad-libbing and doing play-by-play allowed me essentially to describe what was going on in a clear and calm matter.

Now that I have had some time to let this sink in, I am saddened by what I witnessed. I am so sad for the family. At the same time, I am so glad more people were not hurt or even killed.

It’s interesting. The day before I spoke at Point Park University to a group of 200 high school journalists. I told them the greatest moment of my career was covering the Inuaguration and the Super Bowl in succcessive weeks. While it may be a career milestone, it cannot possibly shape the world the way the events one morning in Stanton Heights have.

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