AP photographer captures scene of mass shooting at a California school while his son is trapped inside; AP’s transparent reporting provides clarity amid conflicting casualty figures.

Sometimes, work is a salve for stress. And sometimes, solid reporting in chaotic circumstances provides clarity and trust.

Those realities were displayed in AP’s coverage of the mass shooting at Saugus High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita.

Barely two weeks after narrowly escaping a falling tree branch while covering California’s wildfires, Los Angeles photographer Marcio Sanchez found himself in a nearly unfathomable position: He was making news photos outside a high school where a gunman had opened fire while one of his sons was locked down inside.

When Sanchez learned of the shooting he joined hundreds of other parents who rushed to the scene. Of course he was also carrying his camera. He was able to text with his son Noah, who was trapped in a locker room with his basketball teammates. They had been practicing before classes when gunfire erupted around 7:30 a.m.

Noah assured his father he was safe – but of course no parent in that situation can relax. So Sanchez eased his nerves by photographing the scene of police with guns drawn leading students to safety and tearful parents waiting to see their children.  

As Sanchez made photos, breaking news staffer John Antczak in the Los Angeles bureau tried to make sense of conflicting reports on the casualties. First it was six, and then three and then five. Or six. Some media reported the gunman was dead.

Antczak has spent more than 35 years in the LA bureau and been in the middle of virtually every major story during that time, from the LA riots and O.J. Simpson to the Northridge Earthquake and Michael Jackson. He is calm under pressure and never wants to be wrong.

Antczak was seeing and hearing the different counts and decided, with input from West Desk editors Al Clendenning and Frank Eltman, to report the numbers as they shifted and explain who was giving the differing accounts. When some outlets reported that the gunman was dead, AP moved an alert based on an on-the-record radio interview with the Los Angeles sheriff, who said the gunman actually was in custody. A short time later the sheriff tweeted the gunman was hospitalized. (The gunman died the next day.)  

In a memo the following day, Deputy Managing Editor Noreen Gillespie lauded the work as a good example of “how to deal with a fluid, changing story. Sometimes noting that information is chaotic and changing is the exact move that we need to make.”

By noon on the day of the shooting, the number of dead and injured were clear and a relieved Sanchez was home with his son. West photo editor Stephanie Mullen asked if he and Noah would like to recount their story for the wire. Sanchez said they would do it under one condition: his longtime colleague, Los Angeles reporter Brian Melley, would do the interview and write the story.

I lost it when I saw him.”

Marcio Sanchez, AP staff photographer on the reunion with his son

Noah is a quiet boy and Melley patiently pulled details from him about the fear he and his teammates felt, the smelly locker room where they were hiding, the misinformation arriving by text and the group sitting in the darkness, illuminated by the glow of their cell phones. Noah’s dad, meantime, described how he was able to calmly take photos of other parents overcome with emotion when they saw their children emerge. And he described dissolving into tears when Noah was among those students. “I lost it when I saw him,” Sanchez said. (Not that Sanchez’s week was done – a few days later he was in Mexico City shooting NFL football.)

Melley’s story about Noah’s experience was enriched by the account of a mother and daughter who also texted during the lockdown. Their story was the product of excellent field reporting throughout the day from Los Angeles reporter Stefanie Dazio and videographer Krysta Fauria. In the LA bureau, investigative reporter Justin Pritchard provided a profile of the gunman, while reporters Chris Weber and Bob Jablon took feeds from the field, did phone reporting and crafted updates to the shifting story.

The team effort was highlighted by the remarkable work of Sanchez, Antczak and Melley, who earn this week’s Best of the States award.