Every reporter wants to cover the biggest story of the day, the week, the month, or best of all, the year, even if it’s a story that breaks their heart. If they would rather that someone else cover it, they’re in the wrong business. Sometimes tragedy is part of the journalistic experience, whether it’s the victims of an angry grizzly bear, the gross mistreatment of a foster child, or a terrible accident – like the Humboldt bus crash. In those cases, you have to dig hard to uncover all the relevant facts, find out more than your rivals if possible and capture the drama and heartbreak of a traumatic event without being either inhumane or exploitive, a very fine line to walk. Mostly it’s all about common sense and hard work, but sometimes, as I discovered, it’s also about luck, good or bad.
I was no longer working the police beat for the Edmonton Journal in 1984, but my friend, Conal Mullen, was going on a holiday to Vancouver with his family and he asked me if I would work the weekend police beat shift for him – Oct 20th and 21st. I said sure, both as a favour to Conal, one of the all-time nice guys, and for a chance to stack two days’ worth of time off towards my next exotic adventure in the developing world. As it turned out, I got to stack quite a few more days. Little did I know what I was walking into.
I was awoken early Saturday morning by a phone call from Paul Cashman, the weekend city editor and one of the best managers I ever worked for. Some people lose their composure when a huge story breaks, but not Paul. He calmly informed me that I needed to head to the office as quickly as possible because there had been a small plane crash late the night before in northern Alberta. NDP leader Grant Notley, provincial government Housing Minister Larry Shaben, and eight other people were on the Piper Navajo Chieftain aircraft owned by Wapiti Aviation, and Paul didn’t know if rescue workers had reached the wreckage yet and whether there were any survivors. There was no time to lose. He advised me to pack some warm clothes, a credit card and to expect to be out-of-town for quite a few days.
I lived only 20 blocks from the Journal building and raced there at warp speed. Any way you looked at it this was going to be a very, very big story and I was up for it. Paul, who was the absolute picture of calmness, hired a helicopter to take my good friend, photographer Jackie Northam, and I to Slave Lake, the nearest major town to the crash site. The Wapiti plane was supposed to land in High Prairie, more than 100 kms away. I can’t remember whether we knew by the time we took off, or learned on the helicopter, that only four of the ten people on the plane had survived the crash, but we didn’t know which ones.
I was not a political reporter at that time so I didn’t know much about Larry Shaben, and though I was not then an NDP supporter, I had developed great admiration for Grant Notley. To me, he was very smart, totally unpretentious and a man of integrity working hard to help ordinary people. The primary thing in my mind as we flew to Slave Lake was the hope that Notley had survived the crash, mainly because I felt a connection with him and vastly preferred the idea of a survival story about him to an obituary. I was also hoping Shaben made it through the accident and the long night in the freezing cold, as choppers and search planes slowly pinpointed the crash site, not able to land until the morning light.
Our helicopter finally landed in Slave Lake, and seconds after I stepped onto the tarmac I saw someone in a search and rescue uniform and asked him if he knew if Notley was one of the survivors. I’ve always remembered his response. “The VIP?” he asked. “No, he didn’t make it.”
Of course, nine other families were hoping that their loved one would be among the survivors. I tried, unsuccessfully, to imagine what that must feel like.
About five days later, I interviewed the grieving husband and some of the heartbroken fourteen children of Elaine Noskie at their home in the nearby Whitefish Lake First Nation in Atikameg, Alberta, and was deeply moved by their grief at her death. The others who were killed in the crash included Gordon Peever, Terry Swanson, Christopher Vince and Pat Blakovits. I never met their families, but I’m sure their loss was just as painful as that experienced by the Noskie and Notley families.
I was relieved to hear that Larry Shaben had survived, along with the young pilot, Erik Vogel, RCMP constable Scott Deschamps, and his prisoner, Paul Archambault, who was the least injured of the passengers. The story of Archambault’s heroic actions that night became the positive human interest story that many people still remember fondly. If you want to know the whole story of the crash and its aftermath I strongly recommend the book, Into the Abyss, a meticulously researched and powerfully told story by the journalist Carol Shaben, Larry Shaben’s daughter. It provides a detailed and dramatic account of the mistakes that led to the crash, and of that fateful night around the fire at the crash site, in particular the story of the Mountie and his prisoner as she follows the post-crash lives of the four survivors.
Jackie and I were briefed on the basic facts about the rescue operation and we got permission for our helicopter pilot to take us to the crash site so we could have a look at it from the air and describe it. For obvious reasons we were not allowed to land and inspect the wreckage. Jackie got some good pictures of the mangled plane and we returned to Slave Lake, where I composed and filed the first-day story of the crash, while Jackie sent the Journal her photos. Not surprisingly, the story and pictures filled the front page of the Journal the next morning. I was instructed to use my credit card to rent a car and drive the 120 kms to High Prairie the next morning where Larry Shaben was being treated for multiple serious, but not life-threatening injuries. The other three survivors were flown to Edmonton and local reporters covered that side of the story. I didn’t have a driver’s license, so Jackie did the driving and Byron Christopher, a reporter with CBC Radio, joined us and the three of us became good friends over the next week.
Later that day we arrived at the hospital in High Prairie and as we entered the building, I immediately encountered an orderly and asked if it would be possible to talk to Larry Shaben. He said he would look into it, but it sounded like a real long-shot. We then entered the lobby where dozens of journalists were camped out, just as hungry as I was for any details about the crash and the injuries. So much for an exclusive interview with Shaben. There were a few journalists that I knew and one person I knew of, but had never met, Sheila Pratt, a crack political reporter from the Calgary Herald. We all had the same goal. To try to find out any details we could about the crash, the night in the woods, Shaben’s health status and most importantly, to somehow interview him about his entire emotional experience. He was the only survivor that was still up north.
After a fairly lengthy wait, the doctor who was treating Shaben came out and answered a plethora of questions about his injuries and his condition. The doctor was very forthcoming but all of us were hoping that we could interview the Minister. He replied that there was no way Shaben would be able to endure a gruelling series of interviews with one media outlet after another. That’s when I piped in. I said why don’t we all go to his hospital room together and treat it like a scrum from the legislature or a press conference. That way he could get it all out of the way in thirty minutes and he could physically and mentally recover from the traumatic event without being queried by a long queue of reporters. Everyone agreed that was a good idea and the doctor said he didn’t think his patient was ready for it that day, but he would organize something for the next day.
Many of the journalists were car-pooling like Jackie and I were with Byron and they all headed for the parking lot for the more than 200 km drive to Fairview, where the Notley family lived. Journal managers had scolded me on a number of occasions for not updating them early and often enough when I was on an out-of-town assignment, so I decided to be a good boy this time and placed a collect call from the lobby to the Journal city desk, told them everything I learned from the doctor and said we would head for Fairview immediately.
I put down the phone and walked over to Jackie and Byron, and we prepared to leave. Just then the orderly who I spoke to when I first entered the hospital walked up and said “Mr. Shaben will see you now.” Say what? I was stunned for a few seconds, but then uttered “great, let’s do it.” Byron, Jackie and I looked at each other in disbelief. To say we were taken totally by surprise was putting it mildly. I had completely forgotten about my request to the orderly and realized this was going to be a major scoop on the competition. The great irony of my initial decision to update my bosses for a change, after hearing from Shaben’s doctor, is that if I had just left for Fairview like everyone else without calling, I would have missed the interview with Shaben. Once again, luck was on my side.
Byron came along and so did Jackie, although she was crushed to learn that Shaben didn’t want any photos as he flashed his missing teeth and joked about a picture ruining his “movie star image.” I felt for Jackie, but what could we do? Shaben was sitting in a chair, surrounded by family members as he told us of his long, cold night in the wilderness, fighting to survive along with the others. “I just really feel sorry for the six (who died) including Grant,” he said in a shaky voice. “I guess when the good Lord calls your number it’s your time to go. He didn’t call mine, but he called theirs,” Shaben added. “It was cold and dark and the snow was quite deep – probably three to three-and-a-half feet deep and it was difficult to find any firewood that would burn. It was all green,” he recalled. “But we managed to keep enough of a fire going – there were two fellows (the pilot and the RCMP constable) that were pretty badly hurt – to keep them warm. It was quite a long night.”
Shaben enthusiastically praised Archambault, the 27-year-old prisoner who was being escorted from Kamloops, B.C., to Grand Prairie on two outstanding warrants by RCMP Const. Scott Deschamps. “He (Archambault) was a very neat guy and he worked darn hard. He saved the Mountie’s life by getting him out of the plane. It was very hard to get him out.” The four survivors huddled around their meager fire in the wet snow, talking and moving as much as possible to stay warm until sunrise, he said. Shaben also thanked search and rescue workers for their work through the night. “We didn’t hear the chopper but we heard the Herc (Hercules aircraft) pretty well all night until 5 a.m. I’m not sure exactly when they stopped flying, but they were dropping flares around us through the night, which was comforting.”
Shaben continued. “The four of us chatted quite a bit through the night, and two of us, Paul Archambault and myself, were fortunate because we could move around and I think that was helpful…we just kept moving through the night. We talked about a lot of things. I guess the kinds of things you talk about in that kind of circumstance are pretty private,” he said quietly.
Shaben laughed when asked about the condition of the wreckage. “I couldn’t really tell. I broke my glasses and I’m blinder than a bat without them. I don’t know whether it was upside down, standing on its nose or what.” He declined to talk about what happened to the people who died in the plane. Byron and I respected his decision and realized quickly that he had made up his mind, so there was no point in trying to persuade him to change it, though we would have loved to have heard more details.
We thanked Shaben for talking to us and wished him a quick recovery. I immediately called the Journal city desk and told them about the interview which only we and CBC Radio had. I didn’t tell them how I fluked into the conversation with Shaben and no one asked. My one concern was that Sheila Pratt might get in trouble for missing the story, which wasn’t her fault of course. I considered trying to track her down in Fairview but she was car-pooling with a Calgary Sun reporter and I sure as hell didn’t want the Sun chain to find out that we had the Shaben interview. The Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald were, or should have been, sister newspapers, both owned at the time by Southam News, but there was little love lost between them, especially on the part of the Herald. I remember once phoning a Herald reporter to get the phone number of someone he interviewed the day before so I could match their story the following day. The reporter hedged than called over his boss. He cupped his hand over the receiver but I distinctly heard the manager saying “screw the Edmonton Journal. Don’t tell him anything.” Many times I had phoned local reporters from other Alberta newspapers (except the Sun chain, of course) that weren’t owned by Southam and always got help from them. I did the same for anyone who phoned me, including reporters from the Herald. Nevertheless, I asked the desk to make sure the Herald got our story on the Shaben interview, thinking I was protecting Sheila. Boy, did I get that one wrong as her bosses apparently chewed her out for getting scooped by the hated Edmonton Journal.
I wrote the Shaben story in my notebook while Jackie drove us to Fairview, phoning it in as soon as we arrived and booked rooms in a motel. Following orders, I then wrote what we call a “streeter” – interviewing random people on the streets for their reaction to the plane crash and especially for their thoughts about Grant Notley. Everyone I talked to spoke highly of the NDP leader, including a few who said they liked and respected him, but didn’t share his politics.
Finally, I went to the Notley home with Byron and Jackie and we interviewed Grant Notley’s widow, Sandra, who graciously talked to us, as I believe we were the last reporters to show up in Fairview because of the time we spent talking to Shaben. When asked to characterize her husband, Sandra described him as “a fighter for the voiceless, for people who had no power. He was always available and that meant that everyone had access to the government for redress if they had been wronged.” I distinctly remember the Notley children standing nearby while Sandra, Byron and I talked and Jackie snapped some pictures. I assume Grant’s daughter Rachel, former Premier of Alberta, was there, but I can’t say for sure. I felt like an intruder, but was amazed by Sandra’s composure as she dealt with a long line of journalists. I felt great sympathy for her and the children.
The following morning I ran into another reporter who said that I should look out for Sheila Pratt, who was raging mad at me over the Shaben interview. She assumed that I had negotiated the press conference with him to trick the other reporters into leaving so I could get an exclusive scoop. I immediately told him that the interview with Shaben was a fluke, saying “what was I supposed to do? Say sorry but I can’t conduct the interview because other reporters would think I’d pulled a fast one on them?” Sometimes you get lucky and this was one of those times. The Journal Managing Editor, George Oake, was so pleased over the scoop he offered to take my girlfriend and I out for an expensive dinner when I got back to reward me for my work. I covered a few more events, most memorably talking to the devastated Noskie family before heading home. I wanted to cover the Notley funeral but Oake insisted on sending up a political reporter to write it. I tried like hell to convince him to let me cover it until he got pissed off at me, but I think he liked the fact that I fought for the assignment.
A few months later I learned that Sheila was coming to work for the Journal as the new city editor. That meant she would be my direct boss. Uh oh. Soon after she arrived I asked to talk to her privately and told her the whole story. She was a great sport about it. Thank you, Sheila. I know I must have looked like a snake, and in trying to help you I only made things worse. The reporter who was most upset was Conal Mullen, who missed out on arguably the biggest Alberta story of the year. He told me he was watching television in Vancouver when the station reported on the plane crash story and that he kicked in the TV screen in frustration. I assume he was exaggerating. At least I hope so. I never did tell my bosses how I fluked into the Shaben interview. If they had asked, I would have told them, but I don’t think they cared. We had the scoop and that was all that mattered.
The entire event was rewarding but bittersweet because of all the people who lost their loved ones on that cloudy northern night. If the time comes when you are all business and have no empathy for the people you are interviewing and writing about it really is time to look in the mirror. Yes, you have to raise your journalistic game to your highest possible level on a huge national story like this one. I was physically and emotionally drained after interviewing, writing, polishing and dictating three major stories in one marathon day, all headed for the front page. But if you don’t feel powerfully moved by the heartbroken families of those who lost their lives the reader will likely sense that and not be moved either and you will have failed as a journalist, and more importantly as a human being.
Feature image of the plane crash, Jackie Northam, Edmonton Journal.