- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

Midair collision
It was 6:55 p.m. Monday evening in Washington almost 1 a.m. in Germany when the Associated Press moved its first one-sentence news alert from Frankfurt: "A Boeing airliner and another plane collide in air over southern Germany, state official says."
That bulletin set in motion a roller-coaster ride in newsrooms around the world as the major news agencies offered wildly fluctuating counts of how many people had been on board the two planes.
Over the next several hours the reported death toll on the AP, Reuters and Agence France-Presse wires went in this order from "several" to "many" to "at least 80" to "at least two" to "dead bodies lying everywhere" to "80" to "at least 140" to "97" to "between 140 and 150" to "95" to "up to 150" to "at least 95."
It was not until 10:52 p.m. that the AP finally hit on what turned out to be the final death toll of 71, but even then it was couched as one of two conflicting accounts:
"Uta Otterbein, a spokeswoman for German Air Traffic Control, said the Tu-154 had 80 passengers and 13 crew aboard. But [German police spokesman Wolfgang] Wenzel said the German Embassy in Moscow had reported only 57 passengers and 12 crew. German police earlier said up to 150 were killed, basing the assessment on the number of passengers they thought were aboard."
It became clear fairly quickly after the crash that there had been only two persons on board one of the planes, a Boeing 757 cargo plane operated by DHL Worldwide Express.
But reporters had a terrible time getting any accurate account of who and how many had been on board the other plane, a chartered Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154 run by Bashkirian Airlines.
In newsrooms like ours, meanwhile, editors were watching the deadlines for various editions roll by and trying to figure out how to play the story. If the death toll was in the high dozens or more it was front-page news but if only a handful of people were killed perhaps it belonged on an inside page.

Deadline by deadline

At The Washington Times, the copy deadline for our first edition which is distributed to newsstands and subscribers farthest from our printing plant was about 8:15 p.m.
At that time we had very little reliable information, and what we had was coming in fragments from different wire services. Piecing together every scrap we could find, we fashioned a nine-paragraph story that quoted "an official" saying there had been two persons on board the DHL flight and quoting police telling AFP there had been 80 on what we initially identified as a Tupolev 154. We were in the ballpark, but not quite right.
Deadline for the second edition was not until 10:45 p.m. but the picture was still not clear. Reuters was saying at least 97 were dead and the AP had "up to 150" people killed. Based on an old newsroom rule that it is better to err on the low side, we went with AFP, which had the lowest death toll at least 95 and the best details available at that point. By now the passenger plane was correctly identified as a Tupolev Tu-154.
The deadline for our final edition the one that goes to most street boxes and subscribers in the District and inner suburbs was 11:45 p.m.
By that time most of the wires had German officials saying there had been 69 persons on the passenger plane and two on the cargo plane though other numbers were still floating around. We decided to use the AP story, which was the best written and edited.
The story was about ready to go when, at 11:11 p.m., Reuters moved this bulletin: "MOST PASSENGERS ON CRASHED RUSSIAN TU-154 WERE CHILDREN-MOSCOW DOMODEDOVO AIRPORT"
Twelve minutes later they followed with a short story from Moscow quoting an airline official there saying the Tupolev had been carrying "12 crew and 57 passengers. Among the passengers there were 8 adults and the rest were children."
We quickly inserted that paragraph attributed to Reuters into the AP story, along with a line in the second paragraph saying it appeared that most of those killed had been children.
And with that we stole a march on our main competitors, who were unable to report Tuesday morning on the tragic toll of Russian children killed in the crash.
David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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