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19 September 8ths ago...

September 7, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom Friday night when the call came from Beaver County over the newsroom police radio “Plane down.”

A look out the window at the late summer sun setting in a mostly clear blue sky sent me back 19 Septembers.

I was on my way home on Sept. 8, 1994, after spending a long day at work at the newspaper when the car radio blared a quick bulletin over KDKA that an airplane had crashed on its way to Pittsburgh International Airport.

The enormity of what had happened didn’t really settle in until later, with nonstop coverage, the mobilization of a reporter from our paper (we were a lot bigger in staff then) and the images of there being noting, absolutely nothing, at the crash scene that was identifiable as an airplane.

US Air Flight 427 had been inbound when it simply nosed over and flew at speed into the ground, nose first, killing all aboard, including the son of Steubenville-based businessman Louis Berkman.

There are some excellent pieces of journalism about the mystery of the crash of the Boeing 737 with an experienced crew at the helm of the everyday shuttle from Chicago on a calm September evening, but the absolute best I ever read, and I only stumbled on it within the past year, was a series from Bill Adair, then of the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times (“28 SECONDS: The mystery of US Air Flight 427”), available on the Web at

Adair, by the way, went on to write a book about the crash and investigation (“The Mystery of Flight 427: Inside a Crash Investigation”), was a founder of PolitiFact, the website that keeps track of the truth stretching and outright wild lies of our political leaders, and was the Washington Bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times. He left the newspaper in April to become a journalism professor at Duke University.

Their gain was the industry’s loss, unless he is successful at creating more fact-digging folks with a penchant for telling stories in his image.

I read an interview about his new job, and his seeking to teach new ways for journalists to tell their stories in the web-driven world. I think he’ll do well because he knows firsthand how to tell great stories. His whole series about Flight 427 at the sptimes site is worth your time. Through his words, you are in the cockpit when it dawns on you, the pilot, that you will crash. You are in the passenger cabin. You are with the grieving families over a period of years, dealing with all the phases of their grief while trying to get closure and some sense of it all. You can feel the flames and hear the eerie quiet after the crash. You can smell the flowers in the living room after the funerals. And you can experience the tension of the lead investigator, the frustration of the political process among the FAA, the airlines and the manufacturers in issuing the final crash cause determination years later. Good, great, awesome writing , the sort that kicks kids into wanting to tell stories.

Flashing back further, the late, fantastic Jim Joyce’s coverage in the Herald-Star of the trial of killer of a police officer back in the early 1970s at the Herald-Star made me first realize this writing thing could be really, really cool. I could never be Mr. Joyce, in talent or ability, and it turns out, I hated writing about murders. Job still is pretty cool, though.

The scanner built into an app on my smartphone (unheard of in 1994) told me what I needed to know. Not much was happening in that field Friday night except a small plane was damaged and, undoubtedly, a pilot was a bit chagrined.

A photo on the web within the hour Friday night showed the little plane schlumped at the edge of some trees as the sun was setting, the craft’s sliding cockpit canopy pushed back. A whole airplane that looked like the occupants were able to exit.


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