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The anatomy of a tragedy PR musings

Friday, Nov. 9. My cell phone rings at 5 a.m. Overnight phone calls rarely result in good news, I think to myself. Maybe it’s a wrong number.

“Hello, Paul.” The voice on the other end belongs to a member of the news staff at one of the local TV stations. “Can you confirm whether the two people who died in this morning’s house fire are in fact RIT students?” Having no knowledge of the house fire, I obviously can not.

My TV colleague informs me the fire broke out hours earlier in a house on Rochester’s eastside, a popular neighborhood for rental property among college students and young adults. Neighbors on the scene, she states, claim the residents of the house go to RIT. Unable to respond to any of this, I end the conversation and immediately turn on the TV.

Scanning the stations in search of more details, another thought enters my mine. “Oh, my God, the inauguration!” On a day reserved to celebrate our new university president and a new era, it now appears likely the day will be accompanied by a painful loss. Would the inauguration be held at all?

Later in the morning, confirmation comes to what we had feared. Seth Policzer an Ali Turab, both fourth-year students at RIT, died in the fire. Another student was seriously hurt, but it appeared he would survive. During a break between meetings, President Destler addresses the media, commenting on the obvious sense of loss, particularly for the victim’s families.

“This is frankly every parent’s nightmare,” he states. “You send your children to college to increase their chances that they’ll have a successful life, and you don’t expect them to not come home again.” But even in the wake of such sadness, the president concluded it was not “inappropriate” to celebrate the university’s future—still mindful of what we had lost this day.

I did not know either Seth or Ali, but in writing the introduction to a moment of silence to be included at the inauguration, I can’t help but feel the emotion. As President Destler indicates, the loss of young life, particularly in such a tragic fashion, just shouldn’t happen. Like so many in the RIT community, it seems difficult to reconcile the range of emotions that accompanies what is supposed to be such a happy day.

Being present at the inauguration, it seems healthy for the RIT community to share in this moment. For Seth and Ali, there is time to remember, but now is also a time to refocus on moving forward.

And so we do.


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