What We Don't Learn in School

A letter written by University of Central Oklahoma graduate Kristen Armstrong to her former jourmalism ethics professor Terry Clark.

Editor's note: The following is a letter written by University of Central Oklahoma graduate Kristen Armstrong to her former jourmalism ethics professor Terry Clark. Both Armstrong and Clark agreed to share the letter with the Dart Center. For a response to Armstrong's letter from photographer Jennifer Pitts, see So Much Humanity.


I have a bone to pick with you. The one thing you didn't teach me — though I don't think it's really possible to truly teach — is dealing with trauma.

I know we talked about it in the ethics class, I know Phil Castle (of Dart Center's Australian programs) tried to explain to us exactly what it felt like to make the "death call." But I didn't understand how things could affect me until today. It was my first "Signal 30" — something I have been waiting for since I started here. I have gone to a bunch of injury accidents, but never a fatality. And when we heard the car fire on the scanner and the fire, police and REACT people freaking out, it never occurred to me that I would see what I did.

I don't know if you heard about it — probably not. A young woman (I don't have specifics yet, pending notification of the family) was flying down a county road southeast of Tecumseh. She didn't see a city garbage truck down at the bottom of the hill, stopped to pick up trash. She skidded at least 225 ft, the OHP said, but her brakes locked and she couldn't do anything.

She hit the truck from behind, the force pushing it away from her red Dodge Neon. Then, it burst into flames. The sanitation guys radioed it into Tecumseh Fire, and a policeman heard the call. He was about one mile away, so he sped over to the scene and worked with the garbage men to try to get her out. He said she was talking to them, saying, "Get me out. Get me out." But, as hard as they tried, they couldn't because her legs were pinned beneath the dash.

He used a two pound fire extinguisher, and had the flames controlled until the extinguisher went out. Then, suddenly, the car was enveloped in flames that started shooting out the window. She burned to death.

The fire captain told me when they got there, the car was so saturated with flames they didn't even know there was someone inside until the fire was out. So by the time the photographer and I got to the scene, there were people everywhere, and a sheet covered the broken windshield because she was still inside the car. I have never seen any of the people injured in the accidents I've covered. I always made it there after MediFlight or REACT, so I have never seen blood. I didn't see blood today, just charred flesh.

Jennifer (the photographer) and I stood around at the scene for two hours until every last piece of evidence was picked up. I just stood staring at the car while Jen shot photos — I couldn't take my eyes off of it. Not because I wanted to see her, but just because I felt it wouldn't be right if I didn't drink it in. When the medical examiner came, he lifted the sheet a few times and I saw her face. I saw her left hand — she had a wedding or engagement ring — and bits of her leg sticking through a singed pant leg.

I watched the men from Cooper Funeral Home lift her out of the car and put her in the black bag. They left her shoes inside the car, and I was overwhelmed with a desire to see what kind they were. They were brown leather slip-ons, lined with cream colored shearling. I bet they were warm on cold days. Once they got her out, I looked in the car. The driver's side door was torn off and I could see her purse, full of the remains of odds and ends. In the back, she had a box of something and a metal whisk. I think her seats were covered with leopard print seat covers. For some reason, I just wanted to know those things. Just for myself.

On the way back, Jen and I talked about a bunch of different things, mostly to keep my mind off of the accident. And I thought everything was OK, until I walked into the office and everything was normal. THAT was what almost killed me.

Standing there at the scene was almost comforting — part of me almost wishes I was still there. It was almost sacred — someplace to hide. It was very quiet there. But having to update the editors in the middle of the staff meeting was horrendous; as was having to take phone calls about the Shawnee Education Foundation banquet or answer questions about honor rolls. I couldn't take it. I wish I could leave the story alone, just let her die quietly without any more fuss. But it's my job to write about it.

The other reporters tell me I will get used to covering these stories — that eventually they won't phase me anymore. I guess that's true, but I wonder if it's right. One editor told me not to look at victims as real people, but how can you not? But then the reverse is true as well — if you don't, it will eat you up inside. I guess that is the curse of the journalist.

Hmm. I am normally not this depressed. But I wanted to tell you to remind the students now that things like this are more affecting than you realize. I wish there was some way to go back to my college self and tell her to be prepared.

Until later then — Kristen

For more about Terry Clark's course at University of Central Oklahoma, see Media Ethics.