By Mike Scott
Liz Reyes knew immediately that something awful had happened.
The WVUE anchor was prepping for the local Fox affiliate’s 4 p.m. broadcast on Friday when she stepped out of the newsroom for a few moments. When she returned, something had changed.
People were grabbing equipment and dashing out the newsroom door. Others, she said, wore stunned looks on their faces, “like they had just gotten the worst news ever.”
The WVUE staff had just learned that a two-seat stunt plane in which anchorwoman Nancy Parker was riding had crashed in a New Orleans East field shortly after takeoff from Lakefront Airport. The veteran journalist and mother of three was killed along with pilot Franklin Augustus.
Authorities have yet to determine the cause of the crash.
Details were still few in those early, chaotic moments, Reyes said, but with less than an hour before the 4 p.m. newscast, the WVUE staff did the only thing they could: their jobs.
It would mark the start of an agonizing afternoon and evening. In the coming hours, the team would report through shock and grief, swallowing their emotions and relying on their instincts as journalists to report a heartbreaking story of which they had become a part.
As they scrambled to tell that story, multiple members of the WVUE staff would later say, they were sustained by a common thought: It’s what Parker would have done. It’s also what she would have wanted them to do.
“You’ve got to do this for Nancy, as a tribute to her,” Reyes said in describing the mindset of the newsroom in those initial hours: “let the world know the giant the community lost today.”
First, though, they had to get the story.
Parker’s WVUE colleagues knew she was heading to the airport for a story about Augustus. She had already put in a full day’s work as co-anchor of WVUE’s morning show. By midafternoon, she had traded her anchor clothes for a field-friendly red polo shirt and headed out to put in a few more hours.
They also knew she had gone up in the air with Augustus. WVUE photographer Chris Russell was on the ground at the airport, getting footage of the two-seat Pitts S-2B biplane as it took off about 3 p.m.
Russell first alerted the newsroom that something had gone wrong. According to eyewitnesses, the plane appeared to be having engine trouble soon after takeoff.
Soon afterward, emergency authorities confirmed that two people had been killed in a small-plane crash in New Orleans East. There wasn’t much information beyond that, though. Consequently, WVUE’s initial reports didn’t identify the crash victims.
As Reyes and co-anchor Shelley Brown reworked the script for the station’s 4 p.m. newscast, Reyes said she found herself hoping there was a mix-up — that perhaps Parker hadn’t gotten on the plane.
“You’re checking your email during (commercial) breaks and hoping for good news,” Reyes said.
Aside from uncharacteristically somber looks on the faces of Reyes and Brown, there was no hint to viewers that they were reporting on what had become a very personal tragedy. Nobody watching could see that between them on a small table behind the anchor desk was a supply of tissues.
Meanwhile, WVUE reporter Rob Masson had been dispatched to the crash site, where he would file several live reports over the next few hours. He learned that Parker was, indeed, on the plane that crashed. The station couldn’t reveal that yet, though.
“The people who did our newscasts — the anchors, the reporters who did our newscasts at 4 and 5 — were very much aware it was Nancy,” said WVUE anchor John Snell, who worked alongside Parker for the past 21 years.
They held off on reporting that Parker had died until her family had been notified, a policy that nevertheless forced reporters and anchors to delay the inevitable announcement, and keep their composure, for hours.
“Out of respect for the family, which is protocol, they couldn’t tell our viewers,” said Snell. “Poor Rob Masson was out there (on the scene), fully aware that his dear friend and colleague was on that plane, and he couldn’t report it. But I tell this to people all the time: That’s what we do.”
As difficult as the assignment was, Masson — like others at the station — said he made up his mind to do it for Parker.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do professionally,” Masson said. “But that thought did go through my mind: What would Nancy be doing? The other thought that sustained me was, whatever I’m going through is nothing compared to what her husband, her kids, her family are going through.”
Meanwhile, the WVUE newsroom buzzed with activity.
Snell, who had returned home after working that morning, said he first realized something was wrong when he saw he had missed several calls from fellow WVUE anchor Lee Zurik. Upon learning from Zurik what had happened, Snell jumped back in his car and headed to the station. He needed to pull together an obituary under deadline for the woman he had worked alongside for two decades.
Reporter Rob Krieger, also a part of the WVUE morning crew, showed up, too.
Seemingly out of nowhere, former WVUE producer Bobby Brennan, who for years produced the 9 o’clock newscast, turned up at the station as well.
“He just appears and says, ‘I’ll answer the phone,’” Snell said. “He helped write the 10 o’clock open.”
Travis Cobb, a former WVUE employee now working as a producer at WAFB in Baton Rouge, wound up running the TelePrompTer during WVUE’s 10 p.m. newscast.
“It was that kind of thing over and over,” Snell said. “The chief engineer of the TV station was offering to help edit. It was all hands on deck. … That was the kind of love that she inspired.”
By 7 p.m., it was time. Breaking into programming, anchor Zurik appeared alone behind the anchor desk.
“Our Nancy Parker has died at the age of 53,” he said, announcing to viewers the news that had been wracking the newsroom for nearly four hours. His voice cracked throughout the minute-long report, as he spoke in a tone heard more often in a church than on the local news.
Zurik told viewers that Parker was on the plane, “doing what she loved, telling a story.”
The emotional remembrances continued all evening, during each newscast, and through to Monday’s morning show — the first without Parker in her normal anchor spot.
“She was special to all of us, and we needed to do what we could to pay tribute to that special woman,” Zurik would later say. “I’ll be honest, it was hard for all of us. We all fought back tears during the newscast.”
This story was originally published Aug. 19, 2019, on NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.