The short item that moved on the Associated Press’ New York state wire Saturday night about a two-car crash involving a limousine in the upstate town of Schoharie was hardly remarkable. It included the line: “State police said only that the crash happened just before 2 p.m. ... and caused "multiple fatalities."
Then came the shocking update from the State Police the next morning: 20 people were killed in the crash, making it the deadliest traffic incident in the United States in more than a decade.
AP reporter Deepti Hajela, the lone staffer in New York City bureau that Sunday morning, filed the APNewsAlert and began getting people moving across the state and the region for an all-formats reporting effort that broke news and covered every angle of a horrific tragedy.
All-formats reporter Michael Hill dashed from his home outside Albany and made the 45-minute trip to the rural crash scene, where the super-sized stretch limo had plowed through a T-shaped intersection and slammed into a parked SUV outside a popular country store packed with autumn tourists taking in the fall foliage.
Within minutes, he began dictating material for the story and transmitting video of NTSB investigators scouring the crash scene, which still bore the muddy tracks where the limo careened out of control. His videos included interviews with several witnesses and grieving relatives, including a tearful aunt who spoke about four sisters being aboard the ill-fated limo.
Albany statehouse reporter David Klepper, who was celebrating his birthday in Rhode Island, saw the NewsAlert about the crash and immediately got on the phone with his government sources. He quickly sent in the detail that all 18 people aboard the limo were killed, as well two people outside the country store. That moved as a NewsAlert of its own, and put AP out front alone until those numbers were confirmed at a news conference nearly three hours later.
Stringer photographer Hans Pennink, who joined Hill at the scene, began transmitting pictures almost immediately. His shots of friends and relatives embracing each other in their grief, of the flowers placed in the limo’s tracks, of the lone limo tire that came to rest in a muddy ditch, and of mourners at a candlelight vigil, got massive play, including on such websites as CNN and MSNBC, and the web and print editions of The New York Times and the Washington Post.
Boston reporter Bob Salsberg, who jumped in to help gather string on the victims, appears to have been the first to confirm from a relative that the group was headed to a brewery for a birthday party. And his work began building a series of vignettes on the victims that would move on the wire with photos and video over the ensuing days.
Through it all, Hajela worked with the reporters to constantly update the story, carefully avoiding mistakes that several other news outlets made, such as repeating incorrect reports that the ill-fated group was a wedding party.
AP avoided the mistakes that other news outlets made, such as repeating incorrect reports that the ill-fated group was a wedding party.
Others who contributed to the effort included Albany sports reporter John Kekis, who scrambled to a State Police news conference, Nicholas Riccardi, the national writer on duty who jumped in to help polish the story; New York City News Editor David Caruso, New York State Editor James Martinez and East Desk editor Jeff McMillan.
Their work set the stage for strong reporting in later cycles that detailed the victims, the shoddy maintenance that should have kept the limo off the road, that the limo driver was not licensed to operate such a vehicle and that the owner of the firm had once been a terrorism trial informant for the FBI. The operator of that firm was charged with criminally negligent homicide.
For outstanding breaking news work that lived up to the highest standards of the AP, Michael Hill, David Klepper, Hans Pennink, Bob Salsberg and Deepti Hajela win this week's Best of the States award.