The hardest day of my journalistic career thus far was the day I saw my first dead body.
I rolled into my internship that hazy Friday morning a little late. I normally got there at nine, making me the first person in the office. On this day in particular, I showed up to the building at 9:30. I was wearing my brown leather jacket that I hadn’t worn since I covered the gas line fire about a month prior. It still smelled like smoke if I moved my arms fast enough. Even the smell gave me a thrill. On the elevator up to the fifth floor, I was thinking that this might become my “news jacket”, like a signature wardrobe piece that police and first responders could start to recognize. Joe Fitz has his red hair, I would have my leather jacket.
I’m not religious, but I feel like some higher power was listening in on that internal deliberation and said, “Oh she wants news? We’ll give her news.”
My managing editor walked to my desk and said that there was police activity mere blocks from our office. She said she just sent another former intern there to see what was happening. Early reports were of an accident involving a cyclist, and they didn’t expect there to be much photo opportunity since the collision was about two hours before I arrived to the office. I jumped up and said that I had better hurry, then.
I walked as fast as I could to 6th and Howard. I popped in ear buds on my walk to try to get my photographic juices flowing. It was early, and I am not an early person. I got to 5th and Howard and couldn’t see any signs of police. I thought I had certainly missed it. In that moment, I genuinely felt disappointed. I was grossly sad that I missed out on a crime scene. I kept walking that direction anyways.
I saw the box truck first. I took pictures of the yellow tape tied to the truck and a police car parked facing it. I was approaching slowly, not thinking about the potential scene that I was about to see, but rather to not upset the police working the perimeter.
I found the reporter my editor had sent earlier. He was an intern about a year before, filling in for the day at a meager day rate. He had talked to witnesses around the scene already and told me that it wasn’t pretty. I should have tried to take that as a more clear warning to prepare myself. I walked around the truck and saw an officer standing on the edges of a yellow tarp. The wind caught the tarp between the officer’s legs and lifted enough for me to realize that he was standing directly over her head.
The image of an officer straddling a tarp with his hands on his hips and brain matter under his toes sticks in my head to this day. I walked back to the reporter and realized that we were now on the same page, and neither of us had any sort of preparation for this kind of scene. I told the reporter that the district six supervisor was over the direction I had just come from, and he left me to go get a quote.
I reminded myself of who the fuck I was, and resumed my job. How could I portray the horror of this without showing the gory details? I covered the scene as best I could. I didn’t stay long, I couldn’t bear the thought of watching them try to clean up.
I got back to the office and the avid cyclist that works at the Weekly asked if I could give her any details about the deceased. She was deeply involved in the cycling scene and was worried it might be someone she knew. She asked if I could tell her the race, and I had to tell her that there was no way to tell. Her helmet was crushed. A bystander had insisted on showing me a picture from before they could cover her.
We didn’t learn until much later that her name was Tess Rothstein. As soon as the news broke I took a deep dive into her internet presence. I found a web domain in her name where she had a copy of her resume available to view. Normal stuff for a young professional woman in the Bay Area. Consulting for tech, some non-profit work. What sticks with me is her “Fun Facts” portion. (Who puts fun facts on a resume?) It was a small section that read simply “World traveler, co-op founder, cyclist”. Cyclist.
As I edited the images, I had to omit the pictures that I later realized had visible blood in them.
My editors and colleagues at the paper were all incredible during this process. They said that I could go home and take some time. They said I could talk about it if I wanted to. What I really wanted was to prove that I could handle being a journalist. I knew that sometimes I would have to see things like this, so I maintained composure and finished up the day.
At the end of the day, I went to a bar by myself and got perhaps the most drunk I have ever been in my life.