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

Even after the news ends, the story continues.

For more than 20 years, Jen Maxfield was a television journalist, working primarily for the New York affiliates of ABC and NBC. This represents more than 4,000 reports and more than 10,000 interviews, she estimates.

Once her articles were published, like all journalists, 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 notable people.

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

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

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

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

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

Griffiths jumped to her feet and took her med kit away. “Take him to the hospital,” she ordered. She rode in the ambulance to the emergency room.

Later, an investigation 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 found her. Griffiths met them but then returned to Wales. Haunted by that day, she never returned to her work in the operating room. Although she remained in contact with Esposito, she did not want to speak to Maxfield.

When Maxfield caught up with Esposito, she found him thankfully resettled in Florida after securing an eight-figure settlement with the city. He loves swimming and cycling on a custom pedal bike. He enjoys meeting other people with disabilities and giving them hope.

“If my goal is to help them, I’m more than happy,” he says.

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

Except that Gisselle was still living in El Salvador with her grandmother. And the US government refused to grant him a visa to come here for the operation.

Like many TV reporters, Maxfield combs local newspapers for ideas. When she saw a Bob Braun column in the Star-Ledger on Yarelis, she knew she had one. She rushed to interview the family and air 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 are both living in America with their mother. “We are so happy to be together again,” says Yarelis. They are in high school and Yarelis dreams of becoming an animal control officer.

Tamika Tompkins’ story is darker. A single mother in East Orange, NJ, Tompkins lived with epilepsy and under an uneasy truce with her mother. In 2011, Tompkins found herself pregnant and the father was dangerously abusive.

So she ditched her last boyfriend and tried to move on with her life.

A life that her ex tried to stifle. On March 11, 2012, he entered her apartment and stabbed her 27 times.

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

“If someone threatens you, you take heed of what they say,” Tompkins warned.

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

But when Maxfield decided to contact Tompkins again, the news was not happy. Despite multiple surgeries, the former high school athlete cannot stand for long or clench his fist. She still lives with her mother, a difficult relationship that has its own elements of abuse. But she rejoices in her children and is determined that their lives will be better.

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

And, in some cases, when Maxfield came back to these stories, she found that their results were still ongoing. On May 7, 2018, Maxfield was reporting on a bridge opening in New Jersey when his station called. There was a school bus accident on Route 80. They didn’t know which school, but its crew had to go there. Now.

First, Maxfield and the cameraman did what any parent would do: they called home to make sure their own kids were safe. Then they went back into reporter mode and rushed to the scene.

The bus was carrying 38 children from East Brook Middle School to 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 slammed into him.

The accident tore the bus in two. The kids went flying on the highway. Two passengers were killed, a fifth-grade student and a teacher.

Maxfield got the story, but it was horrible. 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 decided to interview anyone at the little girl’s funeral later.

“I can’t say there is an established moral code, or even a hierarchy to cover up a tragedy,” she writes. “But prosecuting parents the day they bury their child is unforgivable.”

Although Maxfield was allowed to interview the dead child’s best friend, 10-year-old Zaina Matahen, after the crash, the young girl was 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 kid was 13 and a whirlwind.

After the accident, she became the lawyer for the students and her deceased friend. She convinced Governor Phil Murphy to exempt her school from standardized testing that year. Zaina continues to push for laws that would put GPS equipment and seatbelts on school buses.

He still misses his friend. Her family is moving now, and Zaina says it’s a relief. She could still see the girl’s garden when she looked out 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 of going to Stanford University and becoming a pediatrician. Like all of the survivors in this book, she tries to look to the future.

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

Leave a Comment