Someday, I want to write a book. Maybe I’d be the only person to ever read it.. but I love to write, and I’d love to record my memories of working in TV news before all of the hairspray finally permeates my skull. (Let’s be honest, it’s only a matter of time.). This May marks my 15th anniversary working in journalism, all of it at KETV. In May of 2001 I began my first news internship at 2665 Douglas, hired by legendary assignment editor Joe Kasmir. In so many of my memories, there are a few consistent names and faces. My mentor Joe, who passed away suddenly years ago. My ‘TV husband’ Rob, a journalist I revered growing up in Papillion, who became a friend I respect even more today. And a guy behind the camera, who has spent decades of his life devoted to our craft and to our story here at KETV. His name is Scott Buer.
Photo courtesy Kent Sievers, renowned photographer with the Omaha World Herald
You may not recognize Scott, but if you’ve watched KETV AT ALL since the 1980’s, you’ve seen his work. He is also our chief photojournalist, hiring and working with our team of photographers to shoot and edit the stories you see every night. Scott turned 60 this week.. and when I tried to pinpoint one memory of this guy to share a birthday wish on Facebook.. I just couldn’t narrow it down. Here’s just a sample of why.
May, 2004. Scott and I were assigned to follow up on a terribly tragic story; two teenagers had died in a car accident in Elkhorn, Kayla Wilkins and Nick Alfrey. When we walked into that house, I was overwhelmed at the grief this family was facing; Kayla was only 15 years old, she was the youngest child. Her big brother bravely accepted the ‘speaking role’ for his family and sat down with us to share his memories of his baby sister. 12 years later, I can still picture him describing sitting at his sister’s side in the hospital, knowing her time was short. He started singing to her ‘You Are My Sunshine’, a song she had copied from him when he was learning to play piano as a kid. He told us that as he sang the words to his sister in the hospital, her heart rate suddenly started increasing on the monitors.. and then it stopped. Kayla was gone.
Kayla Lynne Wilkins * August 31, 1988 – May 5, 2004
As a journalist, you’re supposed to be a brick wall, right? You’re supposed to be immune to emotion. I couldn’t hold back the tears.. but in that moment, Scott, my seasoned partner for the day, spoke out. He said, ‘let’s just take a second.’ We turned the camera off. We just sat in silence, and we cried.
When we finished our interview, Scott and I hadn’t made it more than a few blocks down the street. He pulled over, turned off the car and said again, ‘let’s just take a break for a minute.’
To this day, that was one of the hardest stories I’ve ever covered at KETV, magnified years later when one of our own, photojournalist Jeff Frolio, died at that very intersection covering a story. His cross went up alongside Kayla and Nick’s crosses; the Wilkins family attended Jeff’s services. We met yet again years after that, when their eldest daughter, Amber, suffered a traumatic brain injury in another terrible car accident. Amber later told KETV’s Hannah Pickett that she remembers her sister, Kayla, with her in the medical helicopter after the crash.. kissing her nose and telling her to fight.
Another crash.. this time around, I don’t have a date for you, but I do remember the day. It was bright outside.. and Scott and I were again working together, this time at the scene of the accident. Law enforcement had shut down the road.. a mangled car with the side completely crushed in was a few yards in front of us. I heard it before I saw it.. the whir of helicopter blades as the medical chopper drew closer. I looked up and watched it approach… but before it landed, even before it hovered over our heads, the pilot turned around. I didn’t understand what was going on.. where were they going??
I looked at the car, and the paramedics on scene pulled a sheet up over what was left of the vehicle. Scott explained to me it was too late. As I stood there, speechless, Scott handed me a rosary. He told me that he kept it with him all the time.
I’m not as devout a Christian as I sometimes wish I was.. but I remember asking my mom for a rosary for Christmas soon after that. I carry it in my purse now.. and on really tough days, like anchoring our coverage of Officer Kerrie Orozco’s funeral.. that little piece of jewelry gives me a little comfort.
This date, I will never forget. December 5, 2007.
I was in VERY early that day to cover President George W. Bush’s visit to Omaha. It was a long and COLD morning, and I was pretty pumped to be back in the Newsplex by 1pm with two stories shot. I had a full four hours to piece together our story in house (which is an ETERNITY in local news.) I was sitting at my desk when the scanners went off.. and the first thing I remember hearing is ‘man down at the bottom of the escalator.’
I’ve referenced a few of my memories before.. News Director Rose Ann Shannon shouting ‘we’ve got to put everything we’ve got on this!’ Somehow, she just knew something unprecedented was happening.
I don’t remember if we were told, or if we just moved, but Scott and I ran, together, out the back door to his news unit. I remember him ‘shushing’ me as he pushed buttons on his car scanner, trying to find the radio dispatch channel for the first responders. We were locked in traffic on West Dodge, going up the hill near 90th.. and a police cruiser passed us at full speed ON the median to our left. Driving ON the median.
Scott parked at the hotel southeast of Westroads Mall.. it overlooked the south entrance to Von Maur without us getting too close and interfering with first responders. The police helicopter.. it was so damn low.. so close to the roof, just circling. Police officers and deputies were moving close to the building, protective shields up, inching closer and closer to the doors.. I had an eerie flashback to a story I had done just months before with the La Vista Police Department, watching as their officers practiced active shooter training. This was no practice.. and as one of our reporters interviewed a shopper who’d run out of the mall, I remember shuddering as I realized, ‘this is happening TO US. This is really happening.’
I had breaks, moments to sit in the truck and listen to what was happening. Scott never did. He stood behind his camera and captured every moment all afternoon and into the night. We didn’t know who would come out, if they’d come out. We weren’t sure how many had died inside.
The Omaha Police Chief was out of town, so the lead public information officer, Sgt. Teresa Negron, was our source for details. I’d worked with the Sergeant every morning for a few years, going to headquarters to check police reports. She is a TOUGH WOMAN; she later went on to the Omaha Police homicide unit and the cold case unit. That day, her voice shook as she gave the first official statements on what happened inside Von Maur. Nine people were dead, including the shooter. Several more were hurt and taken to area hospitals, two of them near death.
Still up in that hotel parking lot, Scott, engineer Josh Rishling and I were all huddled around the monitor in our live truck listening. I put my hand on Josh’s arm, stunned at what we were hearing. We then looked at each other as police announced the hotel we were just feet from would become the gathering place for any family members who were looking for information.
As the sun set on that cold, gloomy December day, numerous police units began driving up into that parking lot.. soon followed by vehicle after vehicle, filled with people hoping for answers. I remember one woman with glasses behind the wheel of mini-van, clutching her steering wheel in one hand, the fingers of her other hand gripping a cell phone pressed to her ear. As we went live, reporting what we were seeing, Scott said to me, ‘Brandi, the Christmas lights just turned on.’
The white string of bulbs around the Von Maur building glowed that night just as they did every other evening during the holiday season. It was such a stark contrast to the parking lot.. empty and silent. They were supposed to symbolize joy and peace.. yet inside was pure horror. I think it reminded both Scott and I that that mall, that building was jam-packed with people, shopping for their loved ones.. and that some of those families would never see their mothers, fathers, children, and friends again.
So many heavy images, feelings and sounds from that day and the days that followed.. but I also think of a moment that still makes me smile. Other than hot dogs and water from the Red Cross, Scott and I hadn’t had much to eat or drink that day. KETV sports anchor Matt Schick (now with ESPN) called me around 10:30-11 asking if he could bring us anything. I asked for chicken nuggets.. and when I leaned over to Scott and asked him, he grabbed my cell phone and VERY urgently said, ‘I NEED CIGARETTES!’ I laughed.. certainly for the first time that day, and one of the last times for the next several days.
I’m breaking what I consider a huge journalistic rule by writing this post..and that is that WE are not the story. WE are not the stars of the show. We are simply the narrators, the story tellers, the recorders of our city and state’s history. Still, as a student of history, I wonder if maybe one of you reading this will connect with these same memories and think back to where you were when you heard about each of these moments. Selfishly, I hope my sons someday pick up ‘Mom’s book’ just to see what their momma did for her job.
I hope this post does one more thing… to tell Scott Buer THANKS. For teaching me it’s OK to cry as a journalist; it doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’re human. For showing me it helps to seek out what gives you strength, and that as different as we all are from one another, there are bigger things that connect all of us to each other. And finally, for being a damn good partner in the field on some of the toughest days we’ve ever faced as journalists. YOUR stories of covering nearly 40 years of news always refuel my fire to constantly strive to be a better journalist.
Happy Birthday, my friend. Here’s to many more days of storytelling together.
For Kayla Wilkins, Nick Alfrey, Jeff Frolio, Joe Kasmir, Gary Scharf, Beverly Flynn, Angie Schuster, Dianne Trent, John McDonald, Gary Joy, Janet Jorgensen, and Maggie Webb.. may they rest in peace. And for the Wilkins family, Fred Wilson, and Micky Oldham, your strength continues to inspire me.