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Listening to Victims: Closing thoughts on four months covering the Aurora Theatre shooting trial

When Kathleen Larimer, who lost her son, John, in the Aurora Theatre shooting, made her victim impact statement in the final days of the trial, she began by telling the judge “I am so tired of crying.” She and her husband, Scott, had been in the courtroom every day for four months, looking for answers that might help make sense of the murder of their youngest child. Over 100 people like Mrs. Larimer stood before Judge Carlos Samour in an Arapahoe County Courthouse and poured out their hearts in victim impact statements about the loss and devastation they experienced because of James Holmes.

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On July 20, 2012, I also took my teenage son to see “The Dark Knight Rises” at the midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado. Our theatre, however, was a few miles away from the Century 16. When the show was over I realized I had missed calls. Many calls. I rushed to the Century 16 Theatre to join my colleagues at NBC News in covering one of the most horrific mass shootings ever. It was so staggering in its carnage and complexity that it was difficult to get my head around it, even after covering the massacre at Columbine High School. The day of the attack was the first time victims began to tell their stories. The sentencing was the end of the three-year odyssey for those touched by the crime.

Over the months, sitting in the courtroom every day, we finally got some answers about the crime and why it happened. But even with light shed on the attack, it could not fill the dark hole in the hearts of the families who lost loved ones. Their anguish was palpable over the months.  The large family of victims held each other up, especially during the last days of the trial, when they finally told the judge, in their own powerful voices, what they experienced, and asked for a maximum sentence for the defendant who dodged the bullet of a death penalty.

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When District Attorney George Brauchler made his final argument in the case, asking the judge to show no mercy to “this guy” and give the “maximum sentence for the maximum evil,” I heard Mrs. Larimer sobbing quietly behind me. For months she and the other family members would sit across the aisle on the other side of the courtroom. I could swivel my head and observe them at key moments, document when they cried, when they glared at the defendant, when they couldn’t take it any more and left the courtroom. Listening to Mrs. Larimer cry right behind me captured my complete attention. I did not turn around to see her, but her sorrow could not be ignored and I listened.

On Wednesday, August 26, Judge Samour made his pre-sentencing comments to the court. He addressed the concerns of victims who said the trial had been a waste of time and money, as the defendant had been willing to plead guilty two years earlier to avoid the death penalty. Samour suggested they should focus on what came out of the trial rather than on regretting the decisions that were made. Then, for each of the twelve who were slain, he referred back to victim impact testimonies and specific points made about those loved and lost. Was it a waste of time when Chantal Blunk spoke about her husband, Jonathan? Was it a waste of time when Sierra Cowden talked about her dad, Gordon? Was it a waste of time when Teresa Hoover spoke about her son, AJ? What struck me as he recalled their names and remarkable lives was that the judge heard the victims. He really heard them.

Judge Samour gave the defendant one of the harshest sentences ever imposed. Twelve life sentences without the possibility of parole and an additional 3,318 years for the people he injured plus an explosives charge. Then dripping with contempt he said “Sheriff, get the defendant out of my courtroom, please.” Breaking with four months of decorum the victims cheered and applauded as James Holmes was taken from the court one last time. 1,132 days after the attack these families can now contemplate moving forward. Some have been galvanized into activism. They are fighting for common sense gun controls and working hard so that the faces of killers are not remembered long after the faces of their victims.  Many, like Kathleen Larimer, are not certain what the future holds but through her tears, she found her voice. “Now that this is over, I have to go home and live with all that emptiness, and yet somehow be happy with life going on,” she said. And when she came up to the microphone that last time, everybody listened.


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The Greening of Greensburg

Very early on the morning on May 5, 2007 I got a call from NBC News to hurry from Denver to Greensburg, Kansas.  There had been a huge tornado and the town was devastated.  Go! Go!  When I pulled into the town six hours later I was stunned to see wreckage so complete that even the bark had been pulled off the trees.  These skeleton sentinals stood over a community of people who were lost and dazed.  The EF-5 tornado had 205 mile per hour sustained winds.  Almost the entire town was in ruins.  It was apocalyptic.

The grain elevator was one of the few buildings left standing in Greensburg, Kansas after an EF-5 tornado destroyed the town on May 4, 2007.

It was hard to imagine coming back from that scene or even having the will to rebuild but Greensburg is a plucky town.  One of the residents, who is now the mayor, Bob Dixson, had a sign on his property within days.  It read “Future home of the Dixson family.  We are blessed.”   They were still optimistic.  I guess when you consider that 11 of their neighbors had died and many more were injured, they were among the lucky ones.  I took this photo when I was out there covering the disaster.  The powerful image made me feel hopeful.

The sign in the rubble of Bob Dixson's home in Greensburg, Kansas following the tornado. He and his wife were among the first who decided to rebuild.

The town decided to pull itself out of the rubble by capitalizing on the Green in Greensburg.  They would come back environmentally friendly and create a community that was truly sustainable.   Over the years I had pitched this story to various news outlets with little success but when Budget Travel magazine singled Greensburg out as one of the coolest small towns in America I had a newsworthy hook and HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports said let’s do the story.

Almost five years later I returned to Greensburg and what I saw was as stunning as that first post disaster morning.  The town is cleaned up and there are beautiful new buildings.  The school, the hospital, City Hall and the John Deere dealership are all built back to the highest environmental standard called LEED Platinum.  There is a pretty little Main Street with shops and even a business incubator sponsored by Sun Chips.  People are living in new eco-friendly homes and are saving up to 2/3 on their utility bills.  And there are wind turbines everywhere powering the community.  Imagine using the same wind that destroyed you to help resurrect yourself!

Bob Dixson's eco-friendly rebuilt home today.

Greensburg still has its work cut out for it.  The town has half as many people as it once did but they are determined to repopulate.  Like many of the small towns in rural America, Greensburg had been dying.  But even after the tornado the folks there said we are not dead yet.  So they set out to create a sustainable future, a vision for their tomorrow that would make Greensburg a place children would want to stay, that would be attractive to new families, invite companies to relocate, and create jobs and economic development.

What’s extraordinary here is that folks in Greensburg are very conservative.  These are not tree huggers but they realized that by going green they could build a community of the future.  Today they are an inspiration for other cities reeling from disasters like tornado ravaged Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  In a time when huge disasters seem to come at us with alarming frequency, Greensburg is showing us how to rebuild and recover.  And the message they send is that green goes with their rural values.  It is just common sense.

The foundation of a new Greensburg is in place.  It has been a gut wrenching process for people who lost everything to imagine something this big when it would have been so much easier to somewhere else.  As the town approaches the fifth anniversary of the tornado this May, they have an enormous amount to be proud about.  I personally would like to go back in five years and see how much farther they have come.  If you are traveling along Highway 54 pull off at Greensburg and see what’s been accomplished.  And if you can’t do that, watch tonight on HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports to see the hard work and ingenuity that brought Greensburg back.

Our Dan Rather Reports crew in Greensburg, Kansas during October 2011 covering the remarkable comeback of the town.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit Teletrends Television Production and Development.

For more of Vicky’s photographs visit Vicky Collins Photography.


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9/11 Ten Years Later

Kyle and the 9/11 Firefighters

Kyle and the 9/11 Firefighters

There are some things I never forget. The day President Kennedy was assassinated. The day the Challenger exploded. Columbine. What I was doing on 9/11/2001. My husband called me and said turn on the television. I got there in time to see the second plane hit the tower. I watched with my hand over my mouth then turned to my little son and said “Kyle, we’re going to war.” All day long I walked around in a daze. That evening I was called by NBC News. Justice correspondent, Pete Williams, had been vacationing in Yellowstone National Park. He could not get back to Washington so he went live from KUSA in Denver. I was his producer. I wasn’t at Ground Zero. I wasn’t among my east coast colleagues. After a couple days Pete finally was able to get home and I returned to my routine and family.

But 9/11 wouldn’t let go of me. I was consumed by the reports and confused by my feelings. I was feeling detached, panicky and somehow responsible. The more I listened to television and radio the more I felt that the United States had somehow brought this upon ourselves. I needed to bear witness to get some perspective. I decided to go to New York and see things for myself. No one I knew would travel with me so I took my son, Kyle, the same one who looked at me confused when I said “we’re going to war.” We arrived in New York City one month to the day after the attacks. My family was incredulous that I would take him there. My husband’s family was furious that I would put him in danger. What kind of mother was I?

I was afraid to get on a plane. I pushed through it. I was afraid of the Muslim cab driver who picked us up from LaGuardia Airport. I pushed through it. He was as shellshocked as everyone else. I was stunned by the incredible compassion of New Yorkers who were so wounded yet so grateful that we had come. Even the homeless thanked us from their street corners for helping New York get back on its feet. Broadway put on its musicals but theatres were empty. The city was edgy. There were anthrax scares. We went to Ground Zero while it was smoldering. The facade was still standing, crews were still combing through the wreckage and the smell of death remained in the air. We read the flyers with faces of the missing. We saw the flowers and makeshift memorials. I was stunned into silence. I finally cried uncontrollably when we went to Grand Central Station and saw the bulletin boards full of pleas from families desperate to locate loved ones. It was all so much to take in.

I wanted Kyle to know what was lost on that day and what we still had. We couldn’t go to the Statue of Liberty so I took him for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry so he could at least get an idea of what this country stands for and why this attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the very essence of America, was so traumatic. And the most profound thing happened. On board the ferry were so many firefighters. They were all from out of town. They had come to attend funerals of their fallen brothers because there simply were not enough firefighters left to honor so many who had died. They were riding the ferry from one funeral to another to give their brothers a proper farewell. Kyle stood among them and had his picture taken. Kyle and the heroes. Later when we were in Midtown Manhattan we paused and watched a funeral processions for a fallen policeman. It was so somber. There was so much sadness in the air.

Now ten years later we pause and reflect and watch memorial tributes on all the television networks then on September 12 we will quickly get on with our lives. So much has changed as a result of 9/11 but so much has really stayed the same. I think most people wish it would just go away and we no longer would live with this cloud of vulnerability. The memories are so painful. But of course it won’t leave us and we persevere. It never will go away and we shall always remember the day and what we were doing when we first found out. I will always be grateful for that time I spent with my son in New York in October 2001. It gave me a chance to grieve and such a sense of clarity. The United States did nothing to provoke this. Did nothing to deserve this terrorist attack at the very soul of America. And yes we did go to war. At the moment it seemed so right. So necessary. We’ve had a lot of time to reflect on that too.

Going to New York after 9/11 was life altering for me and one of the most profound teaching moments for my child. A couple years ago I took my other son, Blair, to New York City. It was a much more festive time but we still went to Ground Zero. It’s a construction site now with a memorial to the side. I kept babbling about memories from the trip I took with Kyle. I wanted Blair to feel it too. We went to the little church next door that withstood the blast and is a memorial to this day. A choir was singing in memory of the fallen, all those years later. There were touching memorials to the New Yorkers and first responders who died. And we went to the Statue of Liberty so he would know what was lost and what this country still stands for to Americans and the world.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit Teletrends Television Production and Development.

To see more photographs visit Vicky Collins Photography.


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Happy Birthday, JonBenet Ramsey

JonBenet Ramsey would have been 21 years old today. I covered this story for years for NBC News. For a time the world could not get enough of this murder mystery.  Was riding a train in Italy one day and mentioned to my seat mates that I was from Colorado. All they wanted to know is “Who killed JonBenet?” Fifteen years later we still don’t know how the little girl died during Christmas 1996 in Boulder. Hopefully someday this case will be solved. Since then, JonBenet’s mother, Patsy Ramsey died and father, John Ramsey remarried. But still no justice for JonBenet.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/05/jonbenet-ramsey-murdered-_n_919553.html?icid=maing-grid7%7Cmain5%7Cdl6%7Csec1_lnk3%7C84175#s323617


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Don’t Google Drunk

We’ve all heard you shouldn’t send off an email when you’re angry or drunk, but the new host of NBC’s Today Show, Ann Curry, reminds us it’s not too smart to Google when you’re drunk either.  This article was the back of the book from the latest “Newsweek.” All about what Ann has learned about making mistakes and laughing about them later.

http://www.newsweek.com/2011/06/05/ann-curry-on-googling-drunk.html


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“This Is What Freedom Looks Like”

Correspondent Ron Allen of NBC News was standing in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt when the news broke that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down. He was in the thick of it and handed the microphone to men standing near him in the crowd for their reactions. They shouted and screamed in triumph. When he retrieved the mic he said “this is what freedom looks like.” How amazing for him to bear witness to such a historic day. And how exciting for the world to see a revolution like this. A regime brought down without guns, without violence, simply with the power of people who are fed up and want the better life that they see in other parts of the world.

Yesterday I was discouraged and even fearful about the cascade of events that seemed inevitable in the Middle East. Would the army crack down on its demonstrators? Would one autocratic leader after another dig his heels in the sand and make life even more hopeless for the people? Would Islamic extremists rush in and fill the vacuum during the transition of power? Would dire predictions about 2012 get their spark in the Middle East? Now there has been a shift and the Egyptians can envision the yoke of oppression off their backs. I wish I could have been in Cairo when Ron Allen heard the news, the joyful noise, and witnessed the birth of a democracy.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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Deja Vu

My youngest son, Blair, is 13 years old today.  A teenager.  Now I have two of them.  I can’t believe how fast the time has gone. Last night I was in his room, sitting on his bed, leaning against the wall, when I had a powerful deja vu.  Just days after his birth I was in the same place, sitting on a futon, holding him in front of me so I could look directly in his eyes, and I was talking to this baby we tried so desperately hard to have.  “Blair, you complete me.”

I was on maternity leave from my “permalance” television production job at NBC News, hoping to get the call that I was being brought on staff.  I was hugely pregnant when they flew me to New York right before Christmas for my interviews at 30 Rock and MSNBC, then I heard nothing.  A month later I left to have a baby and still nothing.  Blair was born on February 1 and I was well into my leave with no word.  I was starting to give up hope that I would get the job.  I remember holding my baby and telling him that it didn’t matter.  “Blair, you complete me.”

Shortly after, the most enormous bouquet of flowers showed up at my door.  It was the kind you see in a hotel lobby.  The card read “Your friends at NBC News would like to welcome Blair Aaron to the world and welcome you to the NBC Family.”  It was one of the most stunning and unexpected gestures I had ever experienced.  Last night I sat on Blair’s bed, cuddling my 13 year old son and I told him that story about how two dreams had come true.  A big boy snuggled in my arms this time and I repeated what I had told him so long ago.  “Blair, you complete me.”

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.

 

 

 


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Barack Obama: Unity Amidst Tragedy

So inspiring to be among the press last night at the University of Arizona’s McKale Center when President Barack Obama addressed the crowd in the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson that killed six and injured 14 others, including Congressman Gabrielle Giffords. The President really struck a chord with his comments and there were many teary eyes when he announced the miraculous news that Gabby had opened her eyes for the first time since the tragedy. The speech was particularly poignant when he called on all Americans to live up to the expectations of the youngest victim, 9 year old Christina Taylor Green. Here are excerpts from a healing and very powerful speech to a wounded nation.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “when I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.

So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

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And in Christina…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.

So deserving of our love.

And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.  I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

 

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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2011: Words to Live By

My friend and former colleague at NBC News, Farland Chang, sent this inspiration with his holiday card. The quotes are wonderful food for thought as we welcome the new year. May 2011 bring health, happiness and prosperity to all.

The best inheritance a parent can give his children is a few minutes of his time each day. O. A. Battista

Always kiss your children goodnight – even if they’re already asleep. H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy. Robert A. Heinlein

Parents who are afraid to put their foot down usually have children who tread on their toes. Chinese Proverb

Parents can tell but never teach, unless they practice what they preach. Arnold Glasow

The most important thing that parents can teach their children is how to get along without them. Frank A. Clark

Life is a ticket to the greatest show on earth. Martin H. Fischer

A man’s dreams are an index to his greatness. Zadok Rabinwitz

In dreams and in love there are no impossibilities. Janos Arany

Everybody needs a hug. It changes your metabolism. Leo Buscaglia

Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are still greater. Albert Einstein

Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right. Henry Ford

Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light. Helen Keller

The past is history, the future is a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.Babatunde Olatunji

In the end, it’s not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away. Shing Xiong

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. George Bernard Shaw

Some of the best things in life are mistakes.

Attitude is everything

God, if I can’t have what I want, let me want what I have.

A true friend sees the first tear… catches the second… and stops the third.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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The Camel and the Cell Phone

Andres from Switzerland, his girlfriend, Paola from Brazil and I were riding on camels in the Thar Desert outside of the western Indian town of Jaisalmer. We were in a spot as remote as I’ve ever been, 21 hours by train from Delhi, just 60 kilometers from the border with Pakistan. It’s a flat, arid locale, punctuated by sand dunes and populated by only villagers, camel wallas and shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats. To me it was a place that time forgot, more like the Middle East than India. It probably hasn’t changed much at all in a thousand years. I felt like a silk or spice trader heading west into the desert. I was deep into my reverie on a camel named Michael when suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by the Nokia ringtone. Dadadadadadadadadadadadada. It seemed our guide, Ali, was a very popular man. For the entire camel safari his cell phone rang. It rang on the sand dunes, it rang under the tree where we stopped to have our vegetables and chapati lunch, it rang at sundown while we were drinking our beer. It rang after we went to bed under the stars and it was the first sound I heard at sunrise. The Nokia ringtone, piercing the tranquility of the desert.

 

Ali and his cell phone

 

The Lonely Planet guide book said the power generating wind turbines that have sprouted around Jaisalmer were altering the historic and mystical qualities of the area, that they made it harder to transport yourself to another time and place. But I barely noticed them. I found it was Ali’s cell phone that kept me coming back to now. I had a similar experience while working at the Olympics in Beijing. Dean, Jim and I took a day trip to hike the Great Wall of China. We climbed in Hebei Province, in Inner Mongolia, about two and a half hours outside of Beijing. We took a 10 kilometer trek from Jinshanling to Sumatai. Up and down stairsteps in a place far out of the way. Yet there was cell service. No place this remote would be served by AT&T in the U.S.A. My colleague, Jim, who probably shouldn’t have been on the adventure because he was so busy with his Olympic assignment as the head technical supervisor of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, spent the entire trip talking on his cell phone. I have no idea how he managed to catch his breath as he scrambled up and down the mountainside. It was truly the most difficult physical challenge of my life, yet he yakked the whole way on his mobile.

We have gotten to a place where we are so interconnected that you can no longer escape, even in some of the most remote spots on earth. While in India I have stayed in touch with friends by Skype, email and Facebook. I tuned in to an computer chat on http://msnbc.msn.com that my friend, Kerry Sanders, a correspondent for NBC News, was holding as he covered the rescue of the miners from Chile. There was really no update from family, friends and colleagues that was inaccessible to me from a half a world away. And even though I am grateful for all the technology and connectedness at my fingertips, and understand the need of the camel walla to stay in touch with his people when he travels through the desert too, I still wish the only sounds that day were my thoughts, the wind and the camels, and not Ali’s incessant Nokia ringtone.

For more on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.