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4 Hours in Huntington: how the heroin epidemic choked a city

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The scene, presented in the most vivid close-up, shows a paramedic frantically pushing an IV full of an opioid blocker into the vein of a woman turning blue and barely breathing. Then the radio squawks: Two more overdoses just reported. Where will Claire Galofaro’s riveting narrative go from here?

“The woman’s eyes blinked open” she writes next. Then: “Red lights on the phone at the 911 dispatch center flashed faster and faster until all 16 lines were screaming. They called from the dining room of a rickety house, the parking lot of a fast food restaurant, the bathroom of a gas station. `People are dying everywhere,’ one caller said.”

So begins an account of a spike in overdoses, 28 in all, during a few hours in a single town _ a report so pulsing with detail and immediacy that it reveals the exhaustively covered national heroin epidemic in a wholly new light. Galofaro’s “Four Hours in Huntington” earns the Beat of the Week.

Addiction to heroin and other opioids has reached crisis levels in many parts of the U.S.

Addiction to heroin and other opioids has reached crisis levels in many parts of the U.S. Galofaro, AP’s administrative correspondent in Louisville, Kentucky, has monitored the devastating impact in Appalachia, including overdose spikes in several towns. She had an idea, says Scott Stroud, news editor for the region: “a deep dive…, focused on events as they unfolded for a variety of players whose lives were affected.” When more than two dozen overdoses happened in four hours in Huntington, West Virginia, “she saw the possibility for a great story and went for it.”

Driving to Huntington, reporting for two days and shooting her own photos, Galafaro sought to show how broadly the opioid crisis spread the suffering _ not just to overdose victims but to stressed police, medical staff and others who confront the emergency daily.

At first, she says, “I did struggle a little to get people to talk with me.” After being turned down for interviews by a couple of overdose victims, she persuaded a woman to discuss her experience. “Both she and her husband were very open about that day and her decades-long struggle with drugs. She was proud of herself for staying clean in the weeks since… I talked to her and her husband for a few hours one night.”

She also interviewed first responders,including an EMS supervisor who was so open not only about the events of the day but the toll it had taken on him that she decided to center the story on him. She asked him to describe the back-to-back calls,giving as many details of each as he could. “The first ones were more vivid for him,like the lady in the car and the man in the bathtub,” she says. “After that,he said it was too chaotic to remember very much about each individual person.”

Police logs helped her create a precise timeline,an EMS accounting gave victims’ age,race and gender, and Huntington’s drug control office provided contextual statistics. http://apne.ws/2bLSmmM

Stroud credits Galofaro’s intimate reporting _ “the kinds of questions she needed to ask” _ for bringing out the story’s vivid detail: a syringe on a floorboard,four breaths per minute,the search for an unscarred vein,muscles seizing and pupils shrinking,victims’ skin turning “the color of blue jeans.”

“It’s possible that someone is such a great interview that they volunteer those kinds of details,but that’s pretty rare,” Stroud says. “More often they’re elicited through great interviewing skills.”

Galofaro’s story won wide play in print and online across the region and far beyond. It got 14,000 engagements on Facebook. Echoing readers,South regional editor Ravi Nessman called it, “The single best thing I’ve read on the opioid crisis.”

For reporting and writing that left readers emotionally wrung out but freshly enlightened on one of the most important public health issues of our time, Galofaro wins this week’s $500 prize.

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