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Quiet vacation turns into global news story

It happens more often than you might expect: a journalist travels to another part of the world for some much-deserved rest and recreation.

And then all hell breaks loose. An international story breaks right on your doorstep. You reach out to the boss back home – or vice versa – and next thing, you’re working 20-hour days. 

That’s what happened this week to CBC NL News reporter Adam Walsh, who was vacationing in South Korea with his wife, who is from that country. In fact, Walsh spent seven years there, as a teacher and journalist, before moving back to Newfoundland. He left for South Korea early in April for a month-long vacation and to attend his brother’s wedding.

Walsh was on an outing with his wife and in-laws when he heard about the sinking of the Sewol, a ferry that capsized in calm seas with 475 people aboard – most of them students on a high school field trip. 

I contacted Walsh via Facebook on Thursday and interviewed him later that day on Skype.

“So, 48 hours ago I saw the news broke and was texting back and forth with Anthony Germain of the St. John’s Morning show. Anthony said, ‘Hey do you mind if we get you on the Morning Show to talk about this?’ I said no, not at all. The next thing you know I was talking to the rest of the CBC.”

Walsh isn’t kidding. He filed reports for The National, World Report, CBC News Net, the World at 6 and supper-hour news programs across the country. When we spoke, it was 9:30 pm NL time and 9:00 am in South Korea, and Walsh had only had two hours sleep as he worked to meet the voracious demands of the North American news cycle. 

The enormity of the story is staggering, he said.

“It’s also a heartbreaking story. South Korea, when it comes to the closeness of families and the closeness of this nation, is very similar to Newfoundland. In my mind, I keep thinking about a disaster of this scale at home and how that would play out with how upset families would be and… yeah, it really is something. Right now, 270 people are still missing. It’s looking more like a recovery mission unless there’s some kind of miracle. The odds of people being alive in that submerged vessel in an air pocket and surviving for two days… the chances are slim and get more and more slim as time goes by.”

I noted that the parallels with the 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia, in which the captain was among the first to abandon ship, are astounding.

“The captain (of the Sewol) is now under criminal investigation. He was questioned by police for 11 hours yesterday. He was one of the first off, according to witnesses, along with the crew. Of forty-four lifeboats, two were deployed. Reportedly, him and some crew were in one of them.”

So how was it to shift from vacation mode – from relaxed downtime – to covering a story as tragic as this?

“It took a little bit. One minute I’m out shopping with my wife and in-laws, and next thing you know, OK, I’m doing this now. But it just happened so quickly that there wasn’t a whole of time to put any thought into it. Now that I’m going back in a couple of days – I am transitioning out of covering this story today – I think now whatever there is to really think about and whatever is going to hit me about exactly what’s been going on over the last couple of days will hit me today or tomorrow.”

Walsh said he didn’t hesitate when asked if he’d be willing to cover the story.

“It’s a news story. Journalism is my profession, I’m very passionate about it and this is a big story. I’m able to tell people back home in Newfoundland and across Canada what’s going on here. There was no question about it: if they wanted me to cover it, I was covering it.”

Any stress he might have felt during the assignment was kept in perspective by the suffering of others, Walsh added.

“I’m here with my family and can walk away from this tomorrow. Looking at the pictures, the grief that’s been going on, nothing (I might feel) even comes close. My heart goes out to everyone who is affected by this.”

Just before posting this entry on Friday, I messaged Walsh to ask if there were any updates – personal or otherwise.

“The vice principal who survived committed suicide,” he wrote. “It’s sad on top of sad. With my in-laws tonight, my father in law is a school principal. Conversation keeps moving back to the ferry sinking. It hangs over us all.”

Walsh is leaving South Korea on Sunday morning and will back to work with CBC NL on Tuesday.

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