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01/05/2011

Christmas time tragedies take their toll

Rick Madonik, Staff Photographer

Over the Christmas holidays, things slow right down. Business and schools close, people travel to see their family, and for those of us who routinely work (media, police, EMS, hospital staff) there is almost always the annual, local disaster to cover. As I don't celebrate Christmas, I generally volunteer to work the holidays. The newsroom is generally barren other than myself, an intern in the radio room (listening to police, fire and ambulance scanners) and a web editor.

This year was particulary sad, with some type of tragedy occurring night after night. Maybe its the cumulative nature of 26 years as a news photographer, but this year's barrage of scene's got to me. So much so, that when it came to a story I had a personal connection with, the picture I produced was not at all what I had desired, or hoped for.

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One fatality occurred when a TTC bus collided with a truck fashioned with a cherry picker. The accident happened in the southbound lanes of Bathurst Street just north of Dupont. 

It began on Dec 23 when a "spotter" working with an electrical contract company lost his life when a TTC bus crashed into the worker, then into the cherry picker of a coworker (injured). The following night, on Christmas Eve day, an apartment fire caused the death of one woman, and injuries to three others. A young man was shot four times - twice in the head and succumbed to his wounds on Christmas Day. And a Newmarket mom, trying to leave a hospital parking lot was killed when the gate mechanism pinned her against her moving car (she hadn't put the car in park and was attempting to insert her paid ticket through an open door as the electric window was not in working order).

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A fire in a ground floor apartment of a low rise building has cost a life. The fire broke out just before 8 pm on Christmas Eve. A flood light held by one of the firefighters outside the apartment lights up the inside and illuminates the fire damage on the wall.

From accidents to unfortunate fires to homicides, Christmas, this year, seemed quite depressing.

On Dec 27th, a reporter and myself visited the distraught family of the Newmarket mom. Many journalists consider it a "privilege" to be welcomed into a home to tell the story of the life of the deceased. And it is. But it is also traumatic. This was one of the most difficult things I did this holiday season. Listening to the stories of a loving mom, sister-in-law and wife, as the reality of the previous days began to sink in. It's made even more difficult when three small children (all under 10) are present and navigating between the death of their mother, and the celebration of Christmas.

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 Winston Salandy, 37, tries to keep his composure as he talks about his wife while in his home. Jennifer died in a strange accident as she exited a hospital after visiting her grandmother.

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Jennifer Salandy with daughter Chelsea, in a picture Jennifer loved. Family Christmas tree is in the background.

On Dec 28th my emotions truly caught up with me. I was given an assignment to photograph the brother of a woman who has been missing for two years. The story followed three families, all of whom had a loved-one unaccounted for. It wasn't until I was outside the house, in my car, that I read the details of the assignment and I quickly realized I had a real connection to this family. The missing woman's father was once a close co-worker of mine. He was, in fact, my bureau chief when I lived in Ottawa.

Nicole Vienneau went missing while travelling in Syria over two years ago. I never met Nicole, but I heard a lot about her, and her brother Matthew through their father. (BTW, Matthew, I would soon meet, was my subject matter for the photo shoot.) So, for years David and I worked closely together. After I returned to Toronto in 1998, David had had already gone off to Global TV but we would run into each other on assignment.

As I knocked on the door to Matthew's home, I felt uncomfortable. David died a few years ago, and I can only wonder how much media attention (and pressure on the government) would have developed if he had been alive and able to keep more focus on the disappearnce of his daughter. Not a trace has ever been found of Nicole as she set off for her day. Media attention always plays a huge part on such cases and we (in the media) often wondered how the government's approach to Nicole's disappearance would have been influenced if David had a continued presence on Parliament Hill (where he worked as a full time reporter) and was able to keep pressure on Foreign Affairs. Sadly, we'll never know, and Nicole's disappearance continues to haunt the Vienneau family. 

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Matthew Vienneau in his Toronto home. Vienneau's sister Nicole went missing two years ago while travelling in Syria.

For me, I found it difficult to come up with something visual to illustrate the pain of his sister's disappearnce. Normally, I'm fairly quick with my portraits often getting in and out in 10-15 minutes (something Ottawa and time-challenged federal ministers taught me), but I was at Matthew's house (he was VERY patient) for about an hour. Everything I tried didn't have the emotional impact I hoped for. 

I never came up with anything satisfactory for the Vienneau shoot, and in some ways, I feel I let an old colleague down. But I can also recognize that sometimes it's very difficult to separate my personal life from my professional life, even when the professional and personal life - in this instance - collide.

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