One of my former newspapers, the Omaha World-Herald, has posted one of my best stories online. I wrote a 1997 narrative of the rescue of 3-year-old twins Jennifer and Kourtney Woracek. The story from the World-Herald archives was republished Sunday as a related link to an update on the twins (now 17), written by World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly, a friend for 18 years.
I don’t know what was my best story ever, but this one was close, if not the best. This was a story about heroic police and medical workers saving 3-year-old girls (both doing well now, as Mike reports).
In the years since I wrote that story, I have used it on occasion as an example in teaching narrative journalism. So I’ll repeat here some of the lessons that I learned or practiced in this story:
Write as you report. I was assigned this story on a Friday morning, a week after the incident. I needed to turn the story in Saturday afternoon for Sunday’s paper. After some interviews and a visit to the scene Friday afternoon, with more interviews scheduled for Saturday morning, I spent Friday night writing my first draft. In the writing, I came up with lots of details I wanted to nail down the next day: What color was the line on the heart monitor that went flat? How much did the girls weigh? What was Jennifer’s precise body temperature (we had reported 69 degrees already, but in writing, it occurred to me that temps are recorded in 10ths, so I nailed it down to 68.9)? What were the girls wearing? I knew I needed to get people who were in the emergency room to walk me through what happened, re-creating dialogue for me. I was able to do that Saturday morning. I had done a good job of reporting Friday, but the writing I did Friday night helped my Saturday reporting.
Get tapes where you can. My colleague Jennifer Dukes Lee obtained and transcribed tapes of the 911 call from the twins’ parents and of the police radio traffic during the search for the girls. Both provided valuable details and dialogue as well as a timeline.
Get records where you can. My colleague Loren Keller, who had left town for the weekend, had left me notes from a Thursday night interview with the sergeant who led the search. His notes prompted my editors to assign me to the narrative (I had not been involved in earlier coverage of the incident). I was unable to arrange further interviews with officers who participated in the search (police had been upset by coverage of a press conference the previous weekend, which they thought depicted a particular officer as a hero, when all the police were heroes). Police incident reports (dry just-the-facts forms) are public records in Nebraska. Supplemental reports (narrative accounts by officers) are neither public nor confidential under Nebraska law (or that was the case in 1997 at least; my knowledge may not be current). Police can release information from supplemental reports at their discretion. I was able to persuade the police public information officer Saturday morning to read me the supplemental reports of more than a dozen officers involved in the search. (I wouldn’t have had time to listen to them all if I hadn’t written my rough draft already). The supplemental reports presented candor I might not have seen in interviews a week after the incident — again and again, officers personalized the search, mentioning a daughter or niece they imagined missing on such a cold night, as they searched for the twins. One of the supplemental reports also provided a detail I was seeking: The officer who carried Kourtney from the alley where the girls were found to the squad car described in her report the girl’s clothes. I got a few more details from records at the emergency room (might be tougher to get that information now, given stricter federal laws on patient records; I wondered at the time whether the hospital staffer who checked the records should be answering my questions).
Identify story elements. Narrative needs story elements: characters, setting, plot, theme, conflict, resolution. My story didn’t have a single protagonist that I needed to develop fully. But I had to give glimpses of the various characters who contributed to the rescue. I needed to see the alley where the twins were rescued as well as the emergency room, the key settings. I needed to drive and walk the scene of the rescue so I could describe it and help the reader see and feel the place. The plot, conflict and resolution were pretty obvious, but I had to keep them in mind in the reporting and writing. For a theme, I settled on the many hands that saved the girls:
Helping hands would pump her heart for her. First Wood steadily compressed her chest as she was carried out to the helicopter. On the three-minute flight to Children’s, flight nurse Kerri Alexander continued the rhythmic pushing on the child’s chest. At Children’s, Dr. Stephen Raynor met the flight crew and placed his hand on the girl’s chest, firmly squeezing the heart as she was wheeled to the operating room.
A succession of heroic and healing hands saved Jennifer and Kourtney when their early morning adventure went awry on a bone-chilling, 9-degree-below-zero Nebraska night.
Use dialogue instead of quotes. The quotes in the story are not people talking to me in past tense. They are characters speaking in scenes:
Paramedics quickly checked the connections between the girl and the monitor. They were secure. Jennifer’s heart had indeed stopped beating.
Life Flight paramedic Corrie Vrbicky told Dr. Charles Denton, “We lost the rhythm.”
No one wanted to panic the girl’s already distraught parents, who were watching nearby. Wood discreetly reached under the blanket that was wrapped around the frozen girl, found the right spot on her chest and pressed firmly down with one hand, pumping her heart for her.
Vrbicky asked Dr. Denton, the emergency room physician, “Do you still want her to go?”
With a wave of his hand, the physician sent the flight crew away, saying: “There’s nothing more we can do for her here.”
Keep your lead brief and enticing. My lead here did not try to tell the whole story, just to set up the basic conflict:
Jennifer’s tiny heart gave up. But no one else would.
Identify your key moments. My narrative started at 4:03 a.m. and continued into the evening. But it was about key moments: the moment Jennifer’s heart stopped beating, the moment police found the girls’ boots stuck in the snow, the moment they found the girls, the moment a nurse raised her arms triumphantly. Key moments are the heart of a strong narrative. You need to help the reader see the action and feel the emotion of those moments.
Keep your beginning in mind when you write the ending. When I learned about the emergency room’s reaction to news about the twins’ condition, I knew it would make a perfect contrast to the opening, which told of those workers’ efforts to restart Jennifer’s heart and keep it pumping on the helicopter as they transferred her to Children’s Hospital:
Ms. Alexander called the surgery department at Children’s, though part of her didn’t want to hear any news, because she feared it was bad.
“She’s doing terrific,” the Children’s nurse told Ms. Alexander. “She’s off pump. She’s pink. She’s making urine. We’re a little worried about her toes.”
It was the best news Ms. Alexander could have hoped for. She hung up the phone and walked out with her arms raised over her head, like an athlete celebrating a victory, and spread the joyous news.
Her toes? The worry had moved from Jennifer’s heart to her toes.
Read your story aloud. Because I had written that draft early, I had time after finishing my story Saturday to read it aloud. That helped me smooth out a few passages and identify some long sentences to tighten.
The story underscored for me that you can write narrative on deadline. It reminded me that reporters do our best work when we tell stories. Thanks to Mike Kelly for updating this story and to Deb Shanahan for pointing out that the story was republished.
If I were doing this story today, I would certainly include audio clips from the 911 call and police radio. I would seek clips from videos in police cruisers, to show whatever I could of the actual rescue (might be difficult since the snowy alley where the girls were found was inaccessible by car). I would probably have a video of ER workers explaining on a doll or a child-sized dummy used to teach CPR how they kept Jennifer alive. (With similar deadlines, I would need a colleague to shoot and edit the video.) But I think the long text narrative remains a powerful storytelling technique. I’m glad this one resurfaced from the archives.