The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s reports on the rescue of its reporter Cathy Frye, who was missing for days in the hot scrubby desert that is Big Bend Ranch State Park, are gripping. Frye, who with her husband, Democrat-Gazette photographer Rick McFarland, got lost in the south Texas park last week and separated when she weakened so he could bring in help, is a fascinating story of terror, fear of death, the urge to live and ultimate rescue thanks to dozens of people who came to her aid from all over the state. After the couple got lost Tuesday, McFarland managed to find his way out — using his camera to zoom in on a glint of metal off a truck in the distance — on Friday and soon a dozen searchers from the ranger’s station were looking for Frye. A Texas state police helicopter and, according to the Democrat-Gazette, the Presidio County sheriff, the Texas Game Warden Search and Rescue Team, game wardens from Austin, San Angelo, Odessa and El Paso, the Texas State Park police, Texas Search and Rescue — in all, the paper reported, about 40 people were involved. It was not until Sunday that Frye was found, sheltering from the sun under a bush, dehydrated but able to talk. She was airlifted out.
The Times got word of Frye’s situation Sunday from a member of her church; the text followed a Twitter post a day earlier that she was missing. After calls to the Presidio sheriff’s office and Frye’s family, who informed us that she’d been found alive, we began to report her rescue on the Arkansas Blog. The Democrat-Gazette followed with a short item online on Sunday afternoon and a full story in Monday’s paper.
The message that came to us Sunday asked, why is no one reporting this? It was curious. Surely the Democrat-Gazette knew it had a reporter missing in the Chihuahuan desert, a woman that Texas was investing serious resources in to rescue. Why no story on Sunday that she was missing? Had Frye’s family asked that the paper withhold the news to protect her young children? Managing Editor David Bailey answered our questions. No, he said, the paper wouldn’t have withheld a story at the request of a family.
“We’re pretty heartless,” he said, which is as it should be: Newspapers report the news, whether folks want them to or not. Often, of course, people don’t want them to.
Bailey said he learned of Frye’s plight at about 1:45 p.m. Saturday from a text he got from McFarland’s supervisor, but at the time he thought she’d been missing only a short time.
Later Saturday night, he got a call from the office. “They told me how long she’d been missing,” he said, but the information was still sketchy. He said he thought to himself that she was probably dead by then and started to cry.
Bailey said he was reluctant to ask for “political favors,” but wanted his reporter found. He got Congressman Tim Griffin’s cell number from the Democrat’s Washington reporter, Sarah Wire, and called him Sunday morning “and bless his heart, he jumped on it.” Griffin made phone calls to Texas officials. He told Bailey he asked them if it were possible that she’d wandered back on to Big Bend National Park in case federal park rangers should be called back to the job. Did Bailey remind Griffin that he and fellow Republicans had shut down the government? No.
Bailey said he wasn’t sure if any of the phone calls — the paper also called Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel — had helped, but he supposes it did, since the 40 searchers turned into 100 by Sunday and search dogs were flown to the area. A plane was waiting at the park’s airstrip when the rescue helicopter brought her in and transported her from there to a hospital in El Paso. (D-G reporter Claudia Lauer was at the hospital when Frye got there; the paper had flown her to Midland on Sunday morning.) Bailey said McFarland had been asked by park rangers if he and his wife were politicians or something, since they’d received so many calls. When McFarland texted that his wife was alive, Bailey said, he shouted the news to the newsroom and the gloom lifted.