Seattle native Casey McNerthney is spending his first Christmas away from home. It couldn’t be more emotional as the Seattle PI reporter files dispatches from heartbroken Newtown, Conn. in the aftermath of the horrific Sandy Point Elementary School shooting.
McNerthney is one of a handful of reporters from the Hearst newspaper group, owner of the PI, sent to Newtown to give some of the company’s reporters who’ve been covering the story since the shooting Dec. 14 a break.
“The staff here has been doing great stuff but they were working around the clock so we kind of came to help out and see what we could do,” McNerthney told KIRO Radio’s Ross and Burbank Show in an interview with guest host David Boze.
At first, it was a tough choice, but after speaking with family he decided he would volunteer to help others enjoy the holiday.
“It’s nice to have an understanding family,” he said. “I also figured it’s easier for a guy who doesn’t have any kids, who’s relatively young to go out there so somebody else doesn’t have to.”
It’s been the most difficult assignment of his career. Nothing could prepare McNerthney for the pain and sadness he would encounter everywhere he went in the small town, like the persistent tears.
“They’re the kind of cries you only see when a child or parent dies. That’s been tough to be around.”
He wasn’t immune. The emotion hit home as he stood outside one of the many funeral services for the young victims, and was suddenly overcome with tears himself.
“It was awful. The worst part about it was – you can’t do anything. There’s nothing in the world that would make these parents feel better than having their daughter back and I think that’s why it was so terrible: You realize there’s nothing you can do,” he recounted tearfully.
One of the big challenges is knowing many locals don’t want him there. He’d seen the stories of townspeople berating reporters and demanding the throngs leave town. He admitted he’d likely feel the same way if he were in their shoes, but he just tried to be kind and compassionate while still doing his job.
“You never want to be intrusive and I realize by circumstance you are. You just kind of acknowledge, ‘I realize you don’t want me here and I understand it.’ People may not talk to you but they’ll still be very nice to you, which is pretty neat,” he said.
Some of those people have gone out of their way to make him feel welcome. After mentioning he was away from Seattle for the holiday, several even invited him to their homes for Christmas dinner.
“You also see some remarkably positive things and some really loving people out here,” he said.
He’s seen the outpouring of love from all over the world. Donations and volunteers continue to pour in. He was particularly moved by a group that arrived in town just before Midnight on Christmas to hang a banner from City Hall.
McNerthney said he’s also been moved by strength and kindness of the families who’ve suffered the most. He said some parents even baked their daughter’s favorite cupcakes and gave them to everyone who attended a memorial service after the young girl’s burial, even the reporters.
“It is incredible that you’re greeted with such kindness by the people there. It shows that not even an unspeakable act of evil can squash that human spirit,” said Boze.