A public tragedy strikes home for Sun journalists




A side effect of journalism on its practitioners is their stoic acceptance of the tragedies they often encounter. Reporters and editors aren't alone in this, of course. Like police officers and emergency room doctors, journalists instinctively adopt attitudes of dispassionate professionalism in the face of human pain. But as with all human beings, that pain can break through the toughest of protective shields.

So it was on Dec. 6 when journalists coming to work at The Sun learned from their newsroom colleagues that the family of Steve Young, the newspaper's deputy copy desk chief, had been devastated by an early morning home fire. Young's 11-year-old daughter, Abigail, died that morning. His son, Matthew, 16, died two days later. Steve was seriously injured but is expected to recover. His wife, Nancy, escaped without injury. The two older daughters were not living at home.

The shock and pain felt across the newsroom was an urgent reminder that the victims we journalists encounter in our work are more than characters in a story. Steve Young's boss, John McIntyre, The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk, posted a note about the fire on his baltimoresun.com blog and has received a flood of responses from inside and outside the newspaper.

One of Young's co-workers wrote: "I work closely with Steve as one of the people who get to lay out and design the front page of the Maryland section of The Sun. One thing I know about him in the three years that we've been colleagues and friends, his children are the world to him. This tragedy is unbelievable and my heart goes out to the family."

Said a former Sun editor: "My heart aches over this horrible news. Steve was one of the first people I met at The Sun when I started out there on the copy desk several years ago, and I knew right away he was a cut above the standard newspaper editor. He has been a mentor and a friend to a generation of young Sun copy editors, always willing to share his institutional knowledge of Baltimore with those of us who needed it most, always available for advice on whatever issues were troubling us, and always quick to share an interesting story about his wonderful children. My thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family."

From news anchor Mary Beth Marsden: "It was with heavy hearts that we reported on the fire today. For a time, all of us at WMAR stopped thinking about gathering information for a story and thought about the Young family, our friends at The Sun and our own loved ones. We send our prayers."

McIntyre said he has been writing about Steve Young and his family on the blog "because that gives us an opportunity to explore personal dimensions apart from our news coverage."

That news coverage began the morning of Dec. 6 when reporter Nick Madigan and photographer Kim Hairston arrived at the fire scene in the Roland Park section of Baltimore. Madigan provided story updates on The Sun's Web site throughout the day and evening, which were accompanied by Hairston's photos. The Sun placed the news story in the centerpiece position on the Dec. 7 Maryland section front.

Madigan's Dec. 8 Maryland section follow-up article, "Quiet vigils follow deadly city fire," described the outpouring of concern and impromptu memorials from family, friends and neighbors.

James Day and Phyllis Orrick, who read the story online in California, wrote: "Nothing's ever going to erase how horrible the house fire was. But I did want to say we thought your story today about the Youngs was excellent. We've known Steve and Nancy and the kids for a long time, and I'd think it'd be hard to capture what they're like and what they mean to other people, but you did. I'm sure the story helped a lot of people, eased some of the pain."

From Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre: "The facts of what occurred are beyond heartbreaking. It has also made me realize that when duty calls, such as the reporting that must take place, the trauma of it all also falls directly on those of you who are charged with that responsibility. Our hearts go out to everyone that has been devastated by this tragedy."

In a sad echo of the loss of the Young children, Sun journalists found themselves reporting early last week on the loss of three other people killed in an explosive Northwest Baltimore collision between an SUV and a Baltimore City firetruck. Mikhail and Iryna Petrov and a friend, Igor Saub, died in what is considered the worst accident involving fire and civilian vehicles in Baltimore in more than 50 years.

The Sun's Dec. 11 front page offered two photos: one of an impromptu memorial to the Baltimore County couple and their friend and one of the destroyed SUV. The photo caption headline read, "A big, big tragedy," and the accompanying article on the Maryland section front, "Mourning, inquiries in aftermath of deadly crash," described the outpouring of grief in the victims' community.

The Dec. 12 obituary for Abigail and Matthew Young, written by Jacques Kelly and Fred Rasmussen, was a beautiful testament to the lives of these two gifted young people. As McIntyre said: "This obituary got more attention from the copy desk than the front page."

Despite their tough skins, journalists are moved by tragedies. It's worth noting that the Young family stories were given final editing by people who worked with Steve Young every night.

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