Death in the newsroom

Dateline: Sat 22 Jul 2006

Mpozi Tolbert was only 34 years old when he collapsed and died in the newsroom of the Indianapolis Star on July 3.

Now there's some quaint, old-school, hackneyed journalese for you -- "collapsed and died."

What utter bullshit. Mpozi did not just fall down with his heart at a standstill, victim of a massive stroke or aneurysm.

That would be tragic but at least within the realm of reason -- stuff happens. People die, even young, seemingly healthy adults.

But the truth is far worse, and it will never be printed in the Gannett-owned Star.

Mpozi -- a vibrant young black male, a bicyclist-about-town, a guy who never met a stranger, the sweet soul of tolerance and curiosity -- was a victim of an inept, profit-driven, cheap, small-minded company.

Gannett is the most financially fat corporation in the now largely souless newspaper industry. But it can't afford the time or money to teach its employees CPR or employ a security team with a first responder or have on hand a pair of defib paddles to revive a man down. (Something Wal-Mart, Target and McDonald's have all managed, as they should).

Gannett, with all its goody-two-shoes emphasis on ethics right down to its practice of hassling employees to ensure that everyone's driver's license is up to date, car insurance in place, etc., has, or had, a setup in the newsroom which DOES NOT ALLOW REPORTERS OR EDITORS TO CALL OUT ON 911.

Note to outraged readers: I am told that little oversight has been corrected. Can anybody say litigation?

Here's the timeline of what happened that night, according to those on the scene.

Mpozi came into work about 6 p.m. He was sitting in his Aeron chair in the heart of the newsroom on the second floor, at the photo desk, spooning a little Ben n Jerry's and joking around with a couple photo interns.

He began having trouble breathing -- he began wheezing. By 6:10 p.m., the sound became so loud, "like a rusty accordian," one woman reported, that it could be heard directly above him into the open 3rd floor photo department.

The time that all this was going down is the witching hour in the newsroom -- the place was packed with copy editors, city editors, reporters, designers, etc., all racing towards deadline. They did what they could and what was obvious -- call his mom in Philadelphia to see if he was on any medication or had a health condition. Call 911.

That's when the Christless fiasco began.

That night, nobody could dial 911 from the newsroom. Gannett wants all such calls to go thru to security, at extension 4900 and located on the first floor, so that security can exert control.

The woman working security that night, who got the calls from the second floor, does not speak English with much skill. So she had a hard time getting a grasp on the situation and began asking a lot of questions rather than getting on the horn right away to 911.

Meanwhile, horrified, frantic copy editors and others whipped out their cell phones to dial 911.

During this time, Mpozi went from being very red in the face to turning blue.

Two copy editors, a man and a woman, gave him CPR. But it must have been too late -- the sound coming from his lungs was more of a death rattle.

Calls to 911 got thru by 6:25 p.m. The EMTs arrived just before 6:30 p.m. from Wishard, just minutes away.

He was paddled 3 times by them before he was taken out of the building at 6:37 p.m.

On the way out, the first floor freight elevator -- which had to be used to accomodate the size of the ambulence gurney -- was blocked.

The Indiana Department of Labor is investigating. Thanks be for that, at least.

The local Indianapolis Newspaper Guild is on the case as well -- they want some answers and they want CPR training, something not legally required in Indiana but obviously available at decent companies with a moral base.

They want answers.

An autopsy so far has shown nothing, but more tests are still being conducted.

Nothing can bring this talented guy back to life, But everything possible should be done from here on out to make Gannett accountable to its employees and the brass at The Star reponsive to the besieged workers there.

I will continue to follow this story. As a journalist for 37 years, who spent 28 years at The Star, including six years under the Gannett jolly roger, I have an obligation.

That's my version of ethics, anyhow.

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