This week’s image is not pleasant to discuss. I have not looked at this photograph in four decades. However, as a former newspaper photographer, I know I must deal with tragic death at least once in these weekly reflections.
On November 1, 1974, I was working the “morning shift” at the Topeka newspaper in the days when the State Journal published for afternoon delivery and the Daily Capital published in late evening for the next morning’s delivery. That Friday morning looked unusually slow. When the fire department monitor initially reported a car fire in the parking lot of a medical center roughly three miles from the newspaper, it was worth checking out since there might be a funny or unique photo opportunity.
Before I could get to my car, one of the lab techs sprinted up to me and breathlessly proclaimed the cars on fire in the parking lot resulted from the crash of the Topeka Police helicopter. Never have I driven a car on city streets faster than I did to that scene.
Fire roared from the wreckage as I dashed to the carnage. A seething howl filled the air from the gasoline-fueled flames. Firefighters pumped massive streams of water onto the wreckage. Their efforts could only be described as futile other than to keep additional cars in the packed lot from igniting. For the longest time, I could only see flames and the massive column of smoke that rose vertically from the fireball.
Eventually, with the fuel spent, the flames subsided and the smoke cleared. There, before my young eyes, I looked at the charred remains of the helicopter pilot, Corporal Marcus “Marc” Hood, Jr. The only people outside of myself to see the negatives of that gruesome sight remain the newspaper’s editors and police investigators and will always remain unseen.
The photograph you see here was not used on the front page. An overall scene of the smoking wreckage and the parking lot was the front page image. The attached image showing senior officers checking the corpse ran inside out of respect for the family.
Hood lost his life one day short of his 40th birthday. He joined the police department in 1959 and transferred to the new helicopter detail in 1971. Investigations revealed a malfunction in the helicopter caused the crash and involved no pilot error. Some sources at the time believed Hood took action to prevent injuries to people in the parking lot in a last effort as the helicopter went down.
During my career, I have seen more death than I would like and most was grossly horrific. In those moments, I never flinched from doing my job. It was only after completing all the work that the tragedy struck home and lingered long as I prayed for help and guidance from my Savior. Even today, I still remember the feeling of helplessness in such situations, including two occasions where I actively tried to save lives.
The question asked often is why take the photographs? In the case of the helicopter, the crash was major news for the city and the loss of life received lesser play. The worst moments were when friends or family reacted to the loss. There are times such dramatic images serve as a cautionary tale. However, I always tried to be very careful to make sure I was only taking the images based on true journalism and not out of personal glory such images could generate. In the days after, fielding irate phone calls from emotional family members taught me a valuable lesson. I learned quickly to let the emotion play out without a word, no matter how personal the attacks. Only then could I offer my sincere sorrow for their loss.
Doing my job well in trying circumstances made me proud. My hope, though, is to never feel that sense of pride from such tragedy again.