On Feb. 8, 2000 a student pilot, Sharon Hock, was practicing flight approaches near the Waukegan Regional Airport when she collided with WGN-radio host Bob Collins's plane. Collin's attempted to make a safe landing but crashed and burned atop a nearby hospital, killing him and his passenger. Hock also crashed and died three blocks away.
WGN radio and the Chicago Tribune are part of the same family, in fact WGN has a first-floor radio studio in the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. The best way to describe the mood of the newsroom that day was sadness, coupled with the need to do our jobs, reporting the story better than anyone else. I understand that to listeners of "Uncle Bobby" and to others that are not in the news business this might sound heartless. It's not. Journalists consider this our responsibility to our readers, our colleague and the others who lost their lives. ... continues
The Tribune has lost one of it's own and it was all hands on deck; the first task for the graphics department was to get information to make a graphic for the next day's paper. Coming up with a breaking news graphic is much more difficult then it seems. You literally have nothing to start with, time is ticking, you are at the mercy of officials and the spotty reports of eye witnesses.
“After about three minutes on top of the roof, it exploded”
The double plane crash in the suburbs must have seemed like a terrorist attack, the explosions blew out windows and started fires. It happened after 3 p.m. but we didn't find out how big the story was until later. Real life is not like the movies, things don't happen simultaneously and there is a considerable lag time in news reporting, for example, officials didn't confirmed Collins' death until 7 p.m.
This left no time for error and no time for graphics coordinator— Melissa Nagy-Deegan — or me to go out to the scene. We had to rely on the reporters in the field and phone calls. We knew the sequence of the events and points on the map: airport, crash sites and flight paths. I started with the map which was going to be the major graphic for the paper, but I found a problem— a big one. Hock's flight path, a key component to the story, couldn't be matched up with other information we had. Showing how the collision occurred on a map would be impossible.
Getting conflicting information happens all the time in news reporting and we write around these conflicts if we can't resolve them by press time, this was one of those cases, but how do you deal with the visual conflict on a map. The answer is you can't.
Let me explain the problem. Hock was practicing touch and go landings at the airport. She would land on the strip, immediately take off and then circle back to do it again. This circle was more of a box that was one mile wide by three miles long. Every map has a scale of miles and we used that measurement to place Hock's flight path. Both planes were coming in for a landing when they collided about a mile and a half from the Waukegan Airport, but we had no idea how to lineup this box with the streets on the map, we could only guess. This was not an option.
Guessing about locations on a map is never okay, unless it's very general. We had very specific locations and this box that ended up being the most important part of the incident could not be placed on a map. My solution was to do graphic instead. The key to the story was what Hock was doing and where she was in relation to Collins' plane, not where she was on a map. We did use a smaller map to place the airport and crash sites, but we used this graphic to explain what happened.
With no streets or scale as points of reference and the perspective of the illustration, this graphic gives you the information you need in a very generalize but very specific way. Even the little shadow under Hock's flight path helps give the graphic depth and a sense of space. These aren't lines on a map, they're planes in the sky.
I have to tell you, I've very proud of this little three-column graphic, it's one of my favorites. And coming up with a solution like this is the very definition of genius. Not that I'm calling myself a genius, in order to do that I'd have to do this sort of stuff everyday.