Roanoke is saturated with grief.
Among the sea of flowers and mementos left in front of the WDBJ station Wednesday evening were a handful of Virginia Tech T-shirts. Mourners left them because Adam Ward, the cameraman shot down Wednesday morning, was a Hokie. But the maroon-and-orange VT shirts are a chilling reminder for Roanoke—that it hasn’t been so long since another apparently mentally ill man with a gun brought southwest Virginia enormous pain.
It’s a cliché to say people from close-knit communities come together after tragedies and find strength and hope through the collective grieving process. We aren’t from Roanoke. We only spent a few hours there. We can’t say if that’s the case. And even if we could, it wouldn’t really be our place to do so. What we can say is this: that the dozens of moms, dads, high schoolers, politicians, journalists, grandparents, and other Roanoke residents who gathered outside WDBJ showed an openness, vulnerability, and good humor that belied their pain.
That may have been because of the nature of the work Adam Ward and Alison Parker did. One after another, mourners we spoke with recalled stories about silly on-screen antics the pair pulled off—when Parker went down a waterslide for a segment; when the two took a sleep apnea test together; when she dressed up as one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters for the debut of the Southwest Virginia Ballet’s performance of the fairy tale, and Ward jumped out from behind the camera dressed as the ugly stepmother.
Everyone we approached wanted to talk. One mother, who brought two young children to the station to grieve, didn’t speak fluent English. So she directed me to her 11-year-old son, who said he and his little sister watched Parker and Ward’s videos on their mom’s phone.
“It was sad when they died,” his young sister said.
She and her brother had paused in front of of an ad-hoc memorial at the station to the pair. Piled by a tree were flowers, votive candles, potted plants, and notes. A pair of turquoise heart-shaped balloons tied to a tree branch read, “You’re so Special.” The air buzzed with cicadas.
Trisha Stump of Roanoke brought her two young sons, both of whom carried small bouquets of flowers—one red, one yellow—to the tree. They tucked notes into the flowers. William, a lively 3-year-old, left a picture of a puppy and a cross.
“He had me write to Alison and Adam, ‘Rest in peace. We love you and we will miss you,’” Stump said.
They’d watched the morning show every day since Alison started.
“Getting ready for work, getting the kids ready for school—we’d just sit there and watch her a couple of minutes,” Stump said. “Always helped brighten the day.”
Stump was watching with her sons when Parker was shot. At first she thought the gunshots were fireworks.
Chris Craft, the president of the Wildwood Civic League, said he had a similar thought—that maybe Parker just got knocked over. She had interviewed him many times, he added, and Ward would make silly faces from behind the camera to calm the interviewee’s nerves. Craft was watching the show when they were shot and said that when he learned they had died, he collapsed.
Gale Huddleston, also of Roanoke, said she learned of the shooting when two dozen police cars whizzed past her on her drive to work. Then her kids texted her that their school was on lockdown because a shooter was on the loose.
“You get cold chills,” said her son, Dalton Lucas, 15.
“Everybody knew her, especially the Martinsville area, because that’s where she’s from,” he added of Parker. “People from Martinsville were proud to see her on WDBJ7. I haven’t heard any ill feeling towards Alison, ever.”
Huddleston added that Parker’s recent segment on child abuse was particularly affecting.
“Not only was she bubbly in the morning, she could do the real journalism stories,” Huddleston said.
Natalie Brown of Roanoke brought her 15-year-old daughter to the station after watching a video of the shooting on Facebook left the young girl shaken.
“She got emotional, and she got scared,” Brown said. “And I said, ‘Well, let’s just go down there.’ So we came down here to pay our respects.”
Jeffrey Marks, the station’s general manager, spent the afternoon and evening fielding questions from the national media, meeting with station employees, comforting mourning members of the community, and doing TV interviews—never losing his eloquence or composure.
“We can’t reconcile the feelings of grief and ‘I must do the job,’” he said. “They just have to coexist.”
And he spoke about finding his team in the worst situation journalists could face: having to cover a story—both tragic and horrific—that they had become.
“Whether you’re a weekly publication in Paris or a journalist hiding out in Syria, or whether you’re a journalist covering the news in southwest Virginia, people depend on you,” he said.
Charlie Scott, another mourner, said he was a daily viewer of the show—one of the people Marks was talking about.
“Such a senseless loss of life,” he said. “These are two young people in their prime, doing what they love to do. Now they’re gone.”
We thanked him for talking with us and said we were sorry for his loss.
“Well,” he replied, “if you’re a journalist, it’s your loss, too.”