The Middle of the Night Phone Call

In the 1987 film Moonstruck, Vincent Gardenia playing Cosmo Castorini, wakes up his wife Rose, played by Olympia Dukakis. She wakes with a start and immediately says, “Who’s dead?”

Several times a year, my phone rings in the middle of the night. I’m in charge of emergency communications at the college where I work, so on the rare times a student is accosted or someone’s dorm room is broken into or someone sees a person who may or may not have a weapon, I’m awakened to make sure the statement with the proper wording goes up on our website or out via text message.

Last Friday, at 2:50 a.m. my phone rang. The caller identified himself and said, “Mark, we’re assembling the emergency team and we need you to come in. Three of our students were hit by a train.”

A train? What? How? That’s positively 19th century. Who gets hit by a train? Good Lord. “I’ll be there in a half hour,” I said, and hung up.

Now what?

I’ve handed student deaths before — suicides, traffic accidents — but nothing like this. I knew from my initial phone call that one student was killed, and the other two were not in good shape. They’d been airlifted to the nearest trauma center.

I debriefed my partner, who immediately went to local news sites to see if he could glean anything. I ran into a hot shower in an attempt to wake up. While dressing quickly, he read me the story from the local paper, so at least I had a few details before setting off to campus.

I set up shop in the security director’s office. I got more details as the rest of the team assembled. The dining hall brought in coffee and bagels. The President, calling from the hospital, wanted classes suspended for the day. I needed to write things.

The first thing I did was be glad that my laptop had a full charge. Secondly, I opened the following tabs in my browser: our website, our site’s admin page so I could edit, the local newspaper’s coverage of the incident, Facebook, Twitter, and Google News. I logged into my e-mail. Then I opened Word. Then I began to type.

The next several hours were a blur, people coming and going, planning other pieces of the operation. I sent multiple iterations of the story to the President and the Provost, who were at the hospital. I spoke to the coroner. I listened as our security team called the police in another town to enlist their help to find parents that we could not raise. We sent the text that cancelled classes. As soon as that hit, I put up the story on the homepage of the College’s site, then posted it on Facebook and Twitter.

Then I packed up and went to my office. It was a little before 7:00 in the morning. I had 6 voice mail messages when I arrived. I listened to them, took notes, wrote down numbers and then did the only sensible thing there was to do: I turned on the coffee pot and went to the bathroom.

It was going to be a very, very long day.

By 7:30 a.m. I had done live phoners for a couple of radio morning shows. We set up for the first live shot of the day and I dispatched an early-arriving co-worker for a bagel. As the TV crews from two markets began to swarm, I held a mini news conference and tried my best not to let them loose on campus to ambush students. It mostly worked.

How did I accomplish this? I simply told them that they couldn’t. Press relations aren’t difficult. The answers are usually: “Yes,” “No,” “I don’t know but I’ll check,” or “No.” Did I say that before? Well, learn it. “No, I’m sorry, we can’t allow that” or “No, I’m sorry, I’m bound by Federal privacy regulations” are my most used stock phrases.

At 3:00 p.m. I was officially spent. I had spent the better part of eight hours on camera, unshaven and bleary, telling the same story over and over and over again. And it’s not a pleasant story to tell. Young people getting hit by train; there’s nothing pleasant about it.

I went home. I napped on the sofa because I just simply fell over. I slept lousily that night. When I got back to work on Monday, I spent most of that day clearing my desk and mopping up details, assembling coverage, filing my notes, dealing with the insistent ones who demanded to know information that I wouldn’t — or couldn’t — give them.

Advice to impart? Some. Simple stuff really.

  1. Have your computer and/or devices charged or at least have access to electricity.
  2. Be organized. Plan. Know what you need beforehand so that when your phone rings in the middle of the night you don’t spent precious minutes running into walls.
  3. Be compassionate yet forceful. Get the information you need.
  4. Thank the people who help you to do your job.
  5. Remember: these are people who have died or who have been injured; they’re not just names on paper. I always think, “If this were my son or daughter, what would I want this institution to do.”

And finally, know when you’re too exhausted to do a good job. Hand over the reins to the next person on the emergency team and go home. When you do, make sure you allow yourself to feel. So much of this work is about being a face for an institution or organization where you need to be as dispassionate as possible, but when you’re out of the spotlight, and it has affected you, just let it happen. You’ll definitely feel better in the morning.

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