This Side Up

The weight of reporting tragedy

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The cruiser was stationed at the entrance of Conimicut Point Park, its lights flashing, Saturday morning. Traffic wasn’t being allowed into the park, and for good reason.

The search for Michael Perry mounted Friday afternoon and carried on through the night was still ongoing. Only on Saturday the sun was shining and much of the ice that hampered navigation of the bay and the Providence River the day before had melted or been wind-driven to the eastern shore.

Eight vessels from the Warwick Fire Department, Department of Environmental Management, Warren and the Coast Guard plied the choppy waters in a grid-by-grid search coordinated from the Warwick Emergency Management trailer parked at the point. A helicopter scouted the area earlier in the morning and police and volunteers had walked the shoreline as far north as Cole Farm and then continued on Gaspee Point and up to Salter Grove in Pawtuxet.

Estimates are that as many as 100 were searching for Perry. They hadn’t found a trace of the 47-year-old Grove Avenue resident, nor the orange kayak he had launched from the park beach Friday before noon. The kayak was recovered from an icy cove across from Providence Port docks in East Providence on Sunday.

I have covered stories like this in the past. Rarely do they have a good ending and, not only do the news reporters at the scene know that, but so, too, do those coordinating the search. There’s no place for idle talk when there is little or no hope.

The command trailer, the canteen truck and a fire truck were huddled, grouped with a view of the lighthouse. A Coast Guard vessel with a flashing red light plowed through the waters in a slow search north of the point. There wasn’t anything new to report. This was going to be a long wait. I turned to leave the scene when the door to the command trailer opened and I was ushered in.

It was warm and filled with light reflecting off the bay. Fire Chief James McLaughlin went over the details. Perry texted his wife around 11:15 a.m. on Friday to say he planned to take out the kayak. He was wearing thermal underwear and a rain jacket. The chief couldn’t say whether he had a life preserver. Reportedly, this was his third time using the boat.

At the point Perry launched, it was raining lightly and, in striking contrast to earlier in the week, temperatures were in the high 50s. It was balmy. That was the deceiving thing. The bay temperature was 31 degrees and heavy rain, fog and high winds were on the way in. By 4:15 p.m., when Perry had failed to return, his wife called police and the search was mounted.

That night brought the worst search conditions in the memory of DEM deputy chief of law enforcement Kurt Blanchard. There was no visibility in the wind-whipped rain and fog. Bay waters were filled with chunks of ice and thrashing with waves.

I knew what Blanchard meant. He didn’t have to say the words; if responders were faced with such conditions, how could Perry have survived? I could tell he was weighted down by the verdict. So was I.

There was a rapping on the trailer door. It was opened to two women. One of them explained she is Perry’s sister and she had just driven in from Connecticut.

“We weren’t that close, but he’s my brother,” she said, breaking into tears. The second woman held and comforted her. I didn’t say anything. I put down my reporters’ pad and camera. This wasn’t the time.

Covering tragedy is part of news reporting. It is never easy. Talking to those closest to the victim or victims feels like an intrusion, disrespectful and somehow tawdry even though, in many cases, this is the information needed to describe the vitality and life of the victim. Those are the attributes we want to remember. In the case where the outcome appears inevitable, yet a body hasn’t been recovered, is even more challenging.

The chief listened, informing the woman that there would be a briefing for family members that afternoon. She thanked him and turned to leave the trailer to join other family members who sat waiting in their parked cars looking out into the bay.

On Friday night the chief arranged to have department chaplain, Father Robert Marciano, at the trailer. City Council President Joseph Solomon, who was also in attendance and acting mayor in the absence of Scott Avedisian, who was out of town, was impressed by McLaughlin’s compassion and professionalism in dealing with the situation.

Once the sister left, the chief said search efforts would be called off that afternoon. Another meeting at a different fire station was scheduled for later to inform the news media. Family members wouldn’t be exposed to the news media, a consideration that saved both family members and the media from dealing with such raw emotion.

I didn’t go to the briefing. There would be nothing new to learn.

I expect to get the call in the days to come that Perry’s body has been recovered. We pray that will be soon.

For now, however, that is the only hope, and while that is something to cling to, its futility is painfully stark.

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MarkThompson

"This wasn't the time." Class act, that Howell...

Saturday, January 20