Channel 7 is still hurting.
It’s been one year since WDBJ (Channel 7) reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were shot and killed by a former WDBJ news employee during a live broadcast watched by thousands of television viewers.
The satellite trucks from national networks and cable news channels that roared into Roanoke to cover the immediate aftermath of the shootings all left long ago. The grief remains.
Chris Hurst still feels it, as do Parker’s and Ward’s families, their friends and co-workers. Hurst, a co-anchorman of WDBJ’s evening newscasts, has been sort of a public face of Channel 7’s grief, ever since he announced soon after the killings that he and Parker had been in love, living together and planning their future.
“The Channel 7 family remains wounded,” Hurst wrote in an email exchange with The Roanoke Times. “We cry, we question and we long for what used to be.”
The past year has been difficult at WDBJ. The station, home of the most-watched local newscasts for generations, was bought by a new corporate owner, which brought in new management and lost or let go several longtime news employees.
Nothing, though, compareswith the trauma of Aug. 26, 2015.
That morning, Parker, a 24-year-old reporter, and Ward, a 27-year-old cameraman, were shot and killed by a former WDBJ news employee during a live interview at Bridgewater Plaza near Smith Mountain Lake. Vicki Gardner, the director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, who was being interviewed by Parker during the “Mornin’” news program, was wounded.
The gunman, Vester Flanagan, fatally shot himself hours later while being pursued by Virginia State Police on Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia.
Kimberly McBroom, longtime anchorwoman for “Mornin’,” was part of the broadcast when Parker and Ward were killed. She said that parts of that awful day seem as if they happened long ago.
“I’m at the stage that, when I think about it, and what happened when the media was camping out on our doorstep, it seems like years and years ago,” Mc-Broom said. “Other days, it feels like it just happened.”
Hurst has been out of town this week and will spend Friday with “some of those Alison loved most, and that will help.”
“I’m hoping Friday won’t be agony but for at least part of the day I’m assuming it will be,” Hurst wrote.
Yet, even in the depths of grief, Hurst said that he is “humbled by the kindness and generosity people have shown after the murders.” WDBJ’s sense of service also remains strong, he said.
“[W]e also are more connected to our viewers and the people we serve by what happened,” Hurst wrote. “There remains the opportunity to use that for good and to give a voice to those who are struggling in their own way and need community comforting just as we have received.”
The Parker and Ward families, along with the staff of WDBJ, have sought to keep Parker and Ward’s memories alive through charitable foundations, scholarships and other service to the local community.
Parker was from Martinsville and a graduate of James Madison University who danced in many productions from the time she was a child. Ward graduated from Salem High School and Virginia Tech and was a major fan of Hokies sports. Creating ways to help young people pursue their dreams in arts and education seemed to be the right way to honor them.
Fully endowed scholarships in their names have been created at both of their respective universities. The organization For Alison (www.foralison.org) raises money to allow children to experience the arts. The Salem Educational Association Foundation and Alumni Association has raised $64,775 and awarded its first $5,000 scholarship this year to Salem graduate Jake Barnett.
WDBJ sponsored the Adam Ward and Alison Parker Memorial golf tournament last year, which raised $20,000 for Salem High School and Patrick Henry Community College. The second tournament will be Sept. 30 at Blue Hills Golf Club. A high school basketball tournament in Ward’s name will be held Feb. 4 at Salem High School.
WDBJ unveiled a memorial to Parker and Ward in front of the station’s broadcast center near Hershberger Road.
Roanoke company RSG Landscaping and Lawn Care built the tree-shrouded memorial, which features benches and plaques that honor the two journalists.
The two are also honored on a permanent memorial at The Newseum in Washington, D.C., dedicated to journalists worldwide who died covering news in 2015.
Channel 7 plans a moment of silence during Friday’s “Mornin’” newscast.
WDBJ has a different corporate owner from a year ago.
In February, Gray Television bought Channel 7 from Schurz Communications, which had owned the station since 1969. General Manager Jeff Marks and News Director Kelly Zuber both left the station. Matt Pumo became president and GM in April, and News Director David Hughes came aboard in June.
Pumo knows that it’s difficult for new employees to fully grasp the shock, trauma and suffering of Aug. 26, 2015.
“You don’t realize the magnitude of what happened until you are here in this building,” he said.
The station has lost other news personnel, some who left, some who were let go. Earlier this month, WDBJ eliminated the jobs of 10 employees, which included a number of news photographers with whom Ward had worked. Gray Television issued a news release saying that it would not comment on any personnel moves, but the departures were confirmed by numerous former Channel 7 employees and other sources who knew the people who were dismissed.
One person who left the station for a new job is Nadine Maeser, a former reporter who is now assistant news director for WECT-TV in Wilmington, North Carolina.
She said it was difficult to leave WDBJ, where she had been especially close to Ward and his fiancee, Melissa Ott, who was a producer at the station. Maeser called the last year “unimaginable” in an email to The Roanoke Times.
“Whether I live and work in Roanoke or don’t, my grief is still as strong as it can be,” Maeser said. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about what happened, but more importantly, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Adam and Alison.”
Pumo credited the staff with persevering through perhaps the most tumultuous period in the station’s history.
“There’s no book on how to handle this,” he said. “A horrific tragedy, changes in leadership at the station and in news … .
“I commend them for their efforts, their attitude and their perseverance.”
McBroom said that she copes by focusing on Parker, Ward and their families.
“They lost a daughter and a son,” she said. “This week I’m thinking of them.”
She said that the public memorials are fitting tributes to her co-workers, but the small things stand out, too.
“It’s not just the big things, it’s sharing stories about them, going to see a play and thinking of Alison or going out to Mac and Bob’s,” which was one of Ward’s favorite Salem hangouts, she said.
“I do not like thinking about that day. But I will never get tired of talking about Alison and Adam and telling people how much I love them.”