The dark clouds groaned over the plains alongside U.S. Highway 87 Tuesday -- a storm was near.
I stood at the bottom of a hill next to a curved asphalt-skinned snake cresting its way northward.
From a distance, I could only see the heads of law enforcement bobbing up and down, surveying the land for motorcycle debris.
At least eight patrol cars in single file along the road let me know this outcome wouldn't be good.
"How did I get here," I asked myself as I stood by with pen and pad in hand, waiting for anyone to give me the details.
"We need you to stay behind these patrol cars and on this side of the hill," the officer in blue said.
"Was it fatal?" I asked already knowing the answer.
The strong-jawed officer couldn't have been much older or younger than me. His jaw tightened.
"I can't say ... doesn't look good," he said, marching back over the hill and disappearing, becoming one of the many bobbing heads.
A buzz in my pocket startled me -- it was Becky Cooper, our city editor.
"I need you to head to 9765 U.S. Highway 87 North," she said.
"Becky, I'm already out here, remember," I told her.
"No, this one is fatal," she said. "Five car pile-up."
My mind blanked. A deputies patrol car sped by just then, flying over the hill.
"You have to be kidding me," I thought.
"Well I'm at this motorcycle wreck and it's fatal, too," I retorted.
I know my editor's face. I could see it in my mind, morphing into this "Oh my God," face.
I finally received the details of the wreck and headed north with a second photographer who picked me up at the scene.
About a mile and a half north, I could see red lights flashing.
"Holy ...," I said as we pulled into the shoulder.
I had Carolina Astrain, our newest multimedia intern, with me.
As I made sure I had everything I needed in my reporter bag, I reminded her of how these wrecks worked. I warned her of what we may or may not see.
As we got out of the car, the wind whipped hard.
The storm was much closer now and the thunder growled hungrily.
My eyes were fixated at the passenger-side of some sort of vehicle. Tangled metal greeted us coldly as we got within five to ten feet of the wreck. It wasn't a pile-up, but it was bad.
My knees felt wobbly. The thunder rumbled on.
Carolina began snapping photos of the mangled vehicle as we tried to figure out what happened.
The trooper called us, pulling us away from the vehicle.
"What's going on," I wondered.
That was when I saw him -- a thin body shrouded by a white sheet. I saw a forearm and looked away.
My heart dropped. The air wrapped around my throat -- a death grip.
We were escorted to the other side of the vehicle, the part less damaged - that's the photo angle our readers saw, and I'm glad.
We gathered the details of the wreck and moved on, back to the newsroom. But the storm wasn't over.
We learned one infant killed in a Laredo hotel had ties to El Campo. His brother was in the hospital, but not doing too well. Then we learned the mother was found dead in El Campo.
Then a call came in about a wreck in Lavaca County.
Our newest breaking news reporter, Caty Hirst, got off the phone, walked to our city editor and said, "There is a wreck troopers are going to with possible multiple fatalities."
"Would it ever end," I asked myself from my desk.
A reporter at the scene finally called in. Our editor hung up the phone.
"Four dead," I heard.
For that minute, we seemed to go silent.
Fingers dancing across keyboards stopped clacking, the scanner went dead and people stood - a moment in silence.
The storm was over.
Every time a reporter covers a fatal wreck, we die a little. We lose just that much more of our humanity.
We become like the Tin Man in the "The Wizard of Oz," heartless, but dying to have a heart.
We put our emotions and heart on hold. We become reporters.
Then the calls and emails come in.
"How could you!"
"I can't believe you would print that!"
We express to everyone that we are sorry and offer our deepest condolences, but this isn't enough.
I finally arrived home at about 11 p.m. A long 13-hour shift.
Darting upstairs, I tore off my clothes and turned on the hot water of the shower, waiting for it to wash away my impurities.
I still felt dirty, sinful.
Laying down in my bed, I realized what I saw could never be washed away, and really, it never should be.
I've never forgotten a fatal wreck, some are harder than others.
As a reporter, I can't help but know where all our fatal wrecks have happened. Driving down U.S. 77 toward my home region in the Rio Grande Valley, I still see the wrecked ghosts of weeks, months and years ago.
I carry in my heart the names and faces of all those lost. I constantly keep the families in my thoughts.
I realize this won't be my last fatal wreck.
One day, another storm will brew, and I'll be caught in the middle of it.
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