NYC reporter’s book revisits old stories, triumphs and tragedies

Even after the news is over, the story goes on.

For more than 20 years, Jen Maxfield has been a TV reporter, primarily working for ABC and NBC’s New York affiliates. That adds up to more than 4,000 reports and more than 10,000 interviews, she estimates.

Once her pieces aired, like all reporters, she moved on. But the people in them didn’t. And Maxfield began to wonder: What happened after the cameras left?

In “More After the Break: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories,” she provides updates and reintroduces some remarkable people.

There’s Kerry Griffiths, a Welsh tourist and operating room nurse. She saved up for a week in New York, and on Oct. 15, 2003, the 34-year-old was on the ferry to Staten Island. Her guidebook had said that’s where you found the best pizza.

And then the ship smacked into the pier at full speed.

A stunned Kerry looked over to see Paul Esposito, 24, lying in a pool of his own blood. Falling debris had severed his legs below the knees.

Griffiths ran over, pulled off his belt, and used it as a tourniquet on one leg. Then she bullied another man into giving her his belt, too, so she could bind Esposito’s other leg.

When EMS workers arrived with stretchers, they hurried over – then turned away. “We can only take people who have a chance,” one said.

Griffiths jumped up and took his medical kit away from him. “Take him to the hospital,” she demanded. She rode in the ambulance to the emergency room.

Later, an inquiry revealed that the assistant captain had dozed off at the wheel. Eleven people died.

But not Esposito.

When he told his family about the heroic nurse, they tracked her down. Griffiths met with them but then went back to Wales. Haunted by that day, she never returned to her job in the OR Although she keeps in touch with Esposito, she wouldn’t speak to Maxfield.

When Maxfield caught up with Esposito, she found him happily resettled in Florida after getting an eight-figure settlement with the city. He loves swimming and going for bike rides on a customized, hand-pedaled cycle. He likes meeting other people with disabilities – and giving them hope.

“If my purpose is helping them, I’m more than happy with that,” he says.

Some of the stories Maxfield revisited had even sunnier endings. One featured Yarelis Bonilla, who was 5 in 2011 and losing her fight with leukemia. A bone marrow transplant was her last hope, and the only suitable donor was her older sister, Gisselle, 7.

Except Gisselle still lived in El Salvador with her grandmother. And the US Government refused to grant her a visa to come here for the operation.

Like many TV reporters, Maxfield combs local papers looking for ideas. When she saw a Bob Braun column in the Star-Ledger about Yarelis, she knew she had one. She rushed to interview the family and get the story on TV.

A special humanitarian parole, which usually takes up to a year, was issued that week. Gisselle flew to America. The operation was a success. Then, as promised, Gisselle returned to El Salvador.

Where are the girls now, more than a decade later, Maxfield wondered?

After seven years of pleas and paperwork, they both live in America with their mother. “We are so happy to be together again,” Yarelis says. They’re in high school, and Yarelis dreams of becoming an animal control officer.

Tamika Tompkins’ story is grimmer. A single mom in East Orange, NJ, Tompkins was living with epilepsy and under a fragile truce with her mother. In 2011 Tompkins found herself pregnant again, and the father was dangerously abusive.

So she ditched her latest boyfriend and tried to get on with her life.

A life her ex tried to snuff out. On March 11, 2012, he walked into her apartment and stabbed her 27 times.

Amazingly, Tompkins survived. She talked to Maxfield from her hospital bed, hoping to warn other women.

“If someone is threatening you, you take heed to what they are saying,” Tompkins warned.

A year later, she went to court and watched her attacker receive a 15-year sentence.

But when Maxfield decided to check in with Tompkins again, the news wasn’t happy. Despite multiple surgeries, the former high-school athlete can’t stand for long or make a fist. She’s still living with her mother, a difficult relationship that carries its own elements of abuse. But she takes joy in her children and is determined that their lives will be better.

Meanwhile, her assailant is eligible for parole in two years.

And, in some cases, when Maxfield returned to these stories, she found their outcomes were still unfolding. On May 7, 2018, Maxfield was reporting on a bridge opening in New Jersey when her station called. There was a school bus accident on Route 80. They didn’t know which school, but her crew needed to get there. Now.

First, Maxfield and the cameraman did what any parent would do – they called home to make sure their own children were safe. Then they switched back to journalist mode and sped to the scene.

The bus was transporting 38 children from East Brook Middle School in Paramus on a field trip. Then, the bus driver – whose license had been suspended 14 times – missed the exit. He tried to cross three lanes of traffic just as a 15-ton dump truck came barreling down.

The crash tore the bus in two. Children went flying onto the highway. Two passengers were killed, a fifth-grader and a teacher.

Maxfield got the story, but it was a horrendous one. Although it’s part of the job, no one wants to interview traumatized children or distraught parents. Maxfield got the footage she needed for the evening news but drew the line at interviewing anyone at the little girl’s funeral later.

“I can’t say there is a set moral code, or even a hierarchy for covering a tragedy,” she writes. “But pursuing parents on the day they bury their child feels unforgivable.”

Although Maxfield had permission to interview the dead child’s best friend, Zaina Matahen, 10, after the crash, the girl had been too withdrawn to say much. Maxfield continued to follow the case; the driver was eventually sentenced to 10 years. But Maxfield wondered how Zaina was doing.

When they reconnected, the child was 13 and a whirlwind.

After the crash, she became an advocate for the students and for her dead friend. She convinced Gov. Phil Murphy to exempt her school from that year’s standardized tests. Zaina continues to push for laws that would put GPS equipment and safety belts on school buses.

She still misses her friend. Her family is moving now, and Zaina says that’s a relief. She could still see the girl’s backyard when she looked out of her bedroom window. “You don’t always want to be reminded that your best friend is dead,” she says.

But then Zaina talks about her hopes to attend Stanford University, and become a pediatrician. Like all of the survivors in this book, she’s trying to look ahead.

“You can’t change the past,” she says. “But you can change your future.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: