Last night about 4:40 a.m., I heard some talk on the police scanner about a woman falling to her death from the 19th story of a downtown building. Since it was about the time for me to leave the building where I work, which was only about a block and a half from where this happened, and drive to the medical examiner's office, I decided to stop near the scene on my way to the West Side, if for nothing else to confirm that someone had fallen there, and if there was a media person from the fire department there, maybe to get some info from them.
The street where it happened was blocked off to traffic by 5 a.m., when I got there, but I was able to park across the street from the scene and get to within about 20 feet of where the body was lying, on the sidewalk, covered by a white sheet. There were also about five guys, in their 20s or 30s, standing at a car closer than mine, a guy in a suit standing up against a wall, a couple guys walking past and stopping, who looked as though they may have just gotten off work from a nearby bar or club, and a girl, maybe in her early 20s, wearing a baseball cap and a Cubs T-shirt, near the guy in the suit. I called the office -- "yeah, there's a body here, no cars on the street seem damaged by the fall, she's right on the sidewalk." As I'm saying that, the girl in the Cubs T-shirt, whose eyes are tear-filled, walks toward me, past me, and into the arms of one of the guys standing just a few feet behind me. She is sniffling, the guys say nothing, she says nothing, then I look to the guy in the suit, and it looks as though he has been crying, too.
My first instinct is that I'm glad I didn't talk loudly on my phone or that I didn't say something insensitive that one of those people out on the street at 5:15 a.m., who clearly knew the now dead woman, may have heard. My other instinct is that these people likely know what happened. There are undoubtedly some people who work as reporters, maybe some who work with me, who'd walk up to the guys, or even possibly the girl, and try to get the "story." But not me, not today. As a human being I'd like to know what happened, of course, it's natural curiosity, but also I look at the small group of people out there, weeping, biting their lips, standing in near silence, and I want to know why this happened ... was there a fight or argument? Was the woman suicidal? Was there a party and was she just drunk and fell? I could get the story if I walked up to them. There is no other media there; no TV station, even though the Chicago ABC affiliate is about one block away; no Chicago Tribune, whose lone overnight reporter likely is already at the ME's office. I could be the first, possibly the only, reporter to get the story, or I could slice open a wound that has not even stopped bleeding yet, turning an already horrible night into something even worse for a few people. Then, possibly, for the rest of their lives, these people, and their families and friends, would hate the media. Or they could just scream at me or through their tears tell me quietly that their friend or relative has just died, and can't I just leave them alone?
The decision wasn't that difficult for me. I leave them alone. Did I "miss" a story? Maybe. Does it matter? No. I did a brief story on it anyway, with the information I had and what police later told me, largely because, though we don't story suicides, if that's what it was, it was something that happened publicly, downtown.
A couple hours later, after getting in my car to drive home, I had to go south anyway to stop at the post office, so I drove past where that woman had fallen to her death. The police were gone, the police tape was gone, there was some sort of debris in the street, a section of the street and sidewalk were wet, likely from the cleanup that took place after the body was removed. I drove slowly, a couple drivers went around me and sped by, past the scene, having no idea what happened there just a few hours earlier. I felt like saying some sort of prayer, but I just drove by, slowly, silently.