How a newspaper helped a town come to grips with horrific grief.
It's how we deal with the dash that determines our destiny
The recent horrific crash of a van and tow truck that killed six children in rural South Carolina tested the limits of how far a community newspaper should go in covering grief. And the longtime publisher and editor of that paper, the twice-a-week, 6,800-circulation Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, says he's satisfied that the newspaper passed that test.
"The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer [about 80 miles northwest of Bennettsville] had a photo of the grandmother [of two of the children] in distress and anguish," says Bill L. Kinney Jr., owner, publisher, and editor of the Bennettsville newspaper. "But we can't do that. ... I just couldn't do that."
For one thing, Kinney says that the crash, among the most wrenching highway accidents in recent history in South Carolina and the worst road mishap ever in Marlboro County, had already devastated the local community where it occurred. Bad news travels painfully fast in Wallace, the scene of the busy intersection where a van carrying six children -- the youngest 7 and the oldest 11 -- was struck by a tow truck late in the afternoon of Feb. 16. So local folks in general and the parents, relatives, and friends of the victims in particular did not need nor did they expect their community's newspaper to sensationalize the deaths, says Kinney, who has worked in journalism for 41 years.
Not that Kinney journalistically ignored the fateful highway accident which has caught the attention of a South Carolina legislator. (That lawmaker quickly introduced a bill that would require child-care centers, churches, and private schools to transport children in school buses instead of vans.) Kinney's newspaper included, among other things, the story of the crash and deaths, a photo of six crosses at the intersection where the van and truck collided, a photo of the van and truck (but of no bodies) at the crash site, and an editorial about how Wallace and the rest of Marlboro County could begin to heal.
Kinney had also just covered the first of three sets of funerals when he was interviewed for this story. The service, held at Wallace Elementary/Middle School for Arielle Nicole Malachi, 11, and her brother Willie Malachi, 10, drew at least 500 people, he says.
Attending that funeral and seeing other expressions of caring and support in Marlboro County, "a typical southern rural community" which is 50% black and 50% white, convinced Kinney that when it comes to grieving, racial differences don't matter.
"We worship together and we grieve together," Kinney says of how Marlboro County has united in trying to console the families and friends of the six young crash victims - two of whom were white and the other four black. "Race has been totally obliterated. It's just nonexistent."
Kinney says the tragic crash, which left the tow truck driver with minor injuries and the van driver -- mother of two of the children killed -- in fair condition at a Marlboro Park Hospital, has brought the community together. About 300 people and 70 ministers gathered at the hospital where the children were taken, Kinney says. Plus, nurses who had worked all day and who had just gotten off duty, came back to help all they could. And the school district rounded up all the counselors it could to work with the families of the children and help students deal with the shock of losing their classmates.
"The whole community really responded wonderfully and miraculously," Kinney says. "I think every church in the county had special prayers for the victims and their families."
Kinney, who himself lost a child, his only son, nine years ago, says that he and his one-reporter/photographer news staff tried their best to tastefully cover the story of who the six children were, what happened to them, and how their families are trying to cope. "I'm very cognizant of the anguish of the grieving families," he says. "We try real hard to be accurate, but we never try to be spectacular when it comes to grief."
A REPORTER'S HAUNTING EXPERIENCE AT THE SCENE
Kinney and reporter Cliff Marcengill were laying out pages and writing headlines at the Marlboro Herald-Advocate the afternoon that it all happened. Suddenly they heard a lot of anxious talk on the scanner -- from the Wallace Fire Department chief, from the Marlboro Rescue Squad, from a rescue squad in McColl, which is a good 15 miles from the Herald-Advocate.
"After they dispatched three rescue squads and two fire departments to come and help, I knew it was bad," says Marcengill, who hustled to the accident scene, about seven miles from the newspaper office and who is thought to have been the first journalist to get there. What he saw when he got to the S.C. 9/Community Road intersection where the van and tow truck collided haunts him even today.
"I've been working here since 1990 and it's the worst thing I've ever seen," Marcengill says. "I had trouble sleeping for two days after that. It was upsetting. The fact that it was children. ... Plus, I had never seen a vehicle inside another vehicle. The tow truck was inside the van. One-half of it was, anyway. And the right-hand side of the van was ripped off. ... The sergeant who works the highway patrol here said it's the worst wreck he's seen in 24 years."
Sensing hostility directed at him from the growing crowd at the crash scene, Marcengill snapped a few photos and left. He figured he could piece together the details later.
But, even later, Marcengill says he worried about how his photographs would be played in the newspaper.
"I went to Bill [Kinney] and asked him to cut the size of the photograph a little bit," Marcengill says. "I couldn't imagine what it would have done to the parents" had the paper run the photo six columns wide.
Kinney acceded to that request, running the lead accident picture four columns wide by four inches deep and centering it on the front page.
What really happened at the intersection of S.C. 9 and Community Road on Feb. 16?
How could Shirley Christine Bennett, driver of the 1996 van, not have noticed, as she has told police, the tow truck driven by Willie Clark?
How could she have almost made it across all four lanes of the heavily traveled intersection?
HOW COULD THESE LIVES END SO TRAGICALLY?
How could the lives of the two Malachi children, as well as those of Phillip Hailey, 7; his half-sister Devona Bloomfield, 11; and sisters April Lynn Sessoms, 9, and Wanda Ann Sessoms, 7, have ended so tragically?
Why did it all happen in Marlboro County?
How does a deeply saddened community cope and begin a return to normalcy?
Kinney, who calls the loss of a child the ultimate grief, offers no easy answers. But he knows, based on personal experience, and he wrote as much in a recent editorial in his newspaper, that healing can begin.
"Once you accept that it did happen, then you can begin to heal," he says. "It's an ongoing process. In this case, you have two [victims] per family. It's going to be harder and longer for those three families. ... But we can all pull together."
And what most struck Kinney in reporting this story?
It came from a black minister at the funeral for the Malachi children. "He said that on the funeral program, it had the birth year and the death year of the two children," Kinney recalls. "The two years were separated by a dash. He said we have no control over our birth year or our death year, but we do have control over how we deal with the dash in between. It's how we deal with the dash that determines how we will spend eternity."