For the past week we have been reviewing the top local stories from 2016 — as we do at the end of every year — and it is always a humbling process. The most tragic stories are the ones that people read the most, of course, and this year brought more than its share of sad news.
We reported on the death of Elko Federal Credit Union CEO Doug Schwartz, who was run over in downtown Elko while crossing the street from a restaurant to his car parked in the corridor. We reported on a young Spring Creek man, Jacob Beetler, who went hiking in the Ruby Mountains and did not return home, his body found weeks later by hunters.
But the most tragic incident of the year, which drew both national and international attention from our readers at elkodaily.com, was the heartbreaking crash of an American Medflight plane in a mining company parking lot on Nov. 18, immediately after taking off from Elko’s airport.
Killed in the crash were two local residents — flight nurse Tiffany Urresti of Elko and patient Edward Clohesey of Spring Creek – along with American Medflight pilot Yuji Irie of Ely and paramedic Jake Shepherd of Utah.
Telling the story of what happened was not easy, and would not have been possible without the help of caring individuals who were able to provide us with the information needed to piece together the facts. As often happens in extreme emergencies, much incorrect information gets spread among the public before the truth is sorted out.
This is the type of story that we at the Elko Daily Free Press – and newsrooms across the country – prepare for but hope will never happen. We discuss scenarios such as the possibility of a plane crashing in the busiest part of town with multiple casualties, and try to plan how we can cut through the chaos to get essential information out to the public.
Handling such an event was the last thing on our minds that Friday night, when most of us had just gotten off work and were beginning to relax for the weekend.
Editor Jeff Mullins was close to the scene when a police scanner report popped up on his phone, incorrectly reporting that buses were on fire and exploding in the Barrick parking lot. He drove to the street adjacent to Smith’s grocery store and as soon as he arrived his car was rocked by a secondary explosion that could be felt even through the closed car windows.
Free Press correspondent Toni Milano, a skilled photographer who is now a staff member with our newspaper, was able to get a clear shot of the flames rising from the parking lot into the dark and chilly sky. Our mining editor, Marianne Kobak McKown, drove back to the office to get the news up on our website. Staff writer Cynthia Delaney tracked down the spot where emergency officials would disseminate information.
Our publisher in Twin Falls, Travis Quast, made sure we had time to get the story together for our weekend edition, extending the deadline and coordinating with our page design center in the Midwest. After much work and even more luck we pressed the final button that sent our story to press just in time for readers to get the news on their doorsteps Saturday morning.
Picking up that newspaper ourselves was a stark reminder of the reality that played out the night before: A heart patient and three professionals who were dealing with his medical emergency perished when an unknown problem forced their plane down in one of the most heavily developed part of town, narrowly missing an apartment complex, hotel, casino and shopping mall.
We later learned that two police officers were injured by a secondary blast as they approached the crash scene, but miraculously the plane hit in the only unpopulated spot in the neighborhood. Several vehicles in the parking lot were destroyed but no buses were involved, and miners coming off their shifts were routed to another company parking lot.
Readers from far and wide followed the updates on our website, which recorded more than 600,000 page views that weekend alone. In the following days we did our best to tell the stories of the people who lost their lives, and even received thanks for our coverage from as far away as Japan, via an email sent to us by the pilot’s daughter.
As we say goodbye to 2016 by reprinting the top news stories of the year we are especially humbled by the role everyone played in dealing with this unthinkable tragedy. We thank our emergency responders and the trained medical professionals who risk their lives daily to save our own. And we look forward to the beginning of a new year, one with more happy stories to tell than sad ones.