Michael Schumacher's ski crash: Reporting from Grenoble and wishing l could forget that week
Five years on from Michael Schumacher's ski crash, Craig Slater recalls what it was like to report from Grenoble the following week...
By Craig Slater
Last Updated: 29/12/18 2:48pm
The first report of Michael Schumacher's accident dropped online in the late afternoon of Sunday 29th of December. It was sketchy. "A skiing accident", "taken to hospital" etc. I rang the newsdesk to ask they kept across additional newswires. An hour later at roughly 5pm UK time, it seemed the story had gone away. Schumacher's injuries were "not serious" according to the director of the Meribel resort. He was "somewhat shaken" but "conscious" after a fall on the slopes.
But by 7pm the tone had changed. An email from Sabine Kehm, Schumacher's manager, arrived referring to his "health" - terminology used in grave situations. It advised there would be no running commentary on his condition - again almost code for something serious. A ring around French media colleagues revealed a Grenoble newspaper - with good contacts at the University Hospital - understood Schumacher's injuries to be severe.
Phone calls and texts to Kehm yielded no response. Grenoble University Hospital took down my details in a manner that suggested a media release was imminent. When they sent out details of a news conference for 9am the following morning it was time to find a cameraman and book flights.
By then Schumacher's condition was being described as "critical". With no early flights available I went on set on Sky Sports News at 7am to detail what we knew thus far - then watched a French feed of the hospital news conference to brief on that. Ashen-faced neurosurgeons who'd been up all night explained the procedures they had undertaken to save Schumacher's life. He'd been airlifted to Grenoble via another facility.
They also confirmed details of the accident. That Schumacher had been with his son Mick and family friends when it occurred.
His prognosis was vague but clearly grim. As the reporter detailed to the story I was asked to conduct various telephone and FaceTime interviews with our international partners as I took a cab to Heathrow. Demand for these was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Walking down to board the plane, I recall the host on the Indian national network NDTV repeating my own words back to me - "it could be that the next 36 hours are key to his hopes of survival."
Two hours later the scene that greeted us at Grenoble hospital was like nothing I've witnessed in 25 years covering sport.
The hospital - a mid-sized teaching facility - had two staff car parks in front of its main building roughly 80 metres square. Both these car parks were now full of satellite trucks and camera cars. Equipment tents were pitched due to the inclement weather and I counted over 30 different networks broadcasting live. There were a couple of F1 colleagues from Germany and Italy who'd been scrambled, but generally these were dedicated news crews and "Europe" correspondents. Everywhere from Argentina to Canada from New Zealand to Japan were represented.
The hospital was swamped - and could do little to control what was going on. Camera crews packed the reception area jockeying for space with patients and their relatives. The main cafeteria became a media canteen.
The French constitution affords considerable liberties to journalists. Public buildings like hospitals also have certain freedom of access rules. That counted against trying to govern the media mob. It was actually possible to take the elevator to the floor Schumacher was treated on and walk down a corridor on that level. Infamously, one 'journalist' dressed as a priest to attempt to gain access to his bedside.
So-called 'sources' abounded. I had three or four conversations with relatives of patients treated on the same floor as Schumacher who claimed to have spoken to his brother Ralf or his father Rolf. The most common claim was that he was due to be flown to Switzerland or Paris imminently for different treatment - without foundation as it turned out.
There were bizarre exchanges with locals. One elderly French patient demanded to know why I hadn't been there to interview all the other people who'd been treated at the hospital - but had only turned up for a celebrity like Schumacher. The handful of Schumacher fans who came to hold a vigil on those first days probably appeared on TV in over a hundred countries.
Attempts to organize briefings could be farcical due to the intensity and size of the media scrum. Sabine Kehm wanted to mobilise a dozen or so English language crews for a short announcement she planned to give. Word got around, however. A semi-circle of 10 cameras I'd set up soon became a full circle of 20 then acquired an inner circle. Pretty soon there was space for just Sabine in the middle of the throng. Space, that is, until an Italian cameraman crawled under legs and filled the one remaining gap - rendering the whole exercise useless.
Forty-eight hours after the accident Schumacher's condition stabilized - and what updates there had been stopped. But there was one last briefing. The hospital allowed selected media to speak off-camera with members of the medical team who had actually operated on Schumacher. It was a guidance briefing, but it felt obvious what the key question now was. Could Michael Schumacher ever fully recover? Most of the surgeons were reluctant to speculate but one told me given the nature of his injuries it was hard to see that there would not be severe, long-lasting and indeed perhaps permanent consequences.
Having more or less repeated every hour what I'd said on the evening of the 30th on the morning of the 31st, I suggested to the news desk we visit Meribel where the crash happened. New Year's Eve morning still saw up to four helicopters an hour ferry in the injured from the slopes - perhaps a sign Schumacher's accident wasn't such a freak after all.
It was a two-hour drive through the snow. On the way I phoned the Albertville police to get an update on their investigation. Attempting that in my imperfect French probably helped. Yet they were understandably evasive. They said they dealt with around 50 accidents a year in the municipality but that they all took time. A news conference in a month was likeliest. Nobody would be put up to speak.
I've never skied even though I washed dishes in a French ski station as a student for four months. Meribel, Schumacher's favourite resort, was upmarket even by ski standards. Predictably, given this was bad publicity for the place, it took over an hour to find any kind of holiday rep or hotelier to speak. Shops reported an upsurge in helmet sales although there were still plenty of folk skiing without them.
One local instructor offered me the chance to visit the crash site. I declined to go to the actual spot itself but said I'd like to see the on piste / off piste boundary. We got there via snowmobile without the camera. Again, I'm not a skier but to me the boundary marking appeared primitive - wooden stakes set at fairly wide intervals of around 20 metres. This was later found to conform adequately to French standards although there were plenty of folk in Meribel ready to tell me ski runs are far better fenced off elsewhere.
We couldn't get a signal in the resort to feed our material so we were late to file. It was only when we were driving back after 10pm we remembered it was New Year's Eve. It was a moment to stop and think about the Schumachers and what they were going through.
That may seem callous but we'd been on a treadmill for three days. Sometimes when the subject is so grim the nuts and bolts of the job - the phone calls, the interview preparation, the scripting, the editing, the conversations with the newsdesk - are a necessary distraction.
I didn't really know Schumacher well. I'd interviewed him a couple of times in the rushed, impersonal way Grand Prix weekends dictate - and unsurprisingly he'd never really engaged - in what was his last competitive season. That 2012 campaign saw one of the greatest sporting careers of my lifetime end on what was - Monaco qualifying apart - a series of flat notes.
I'd heard many reporters utter variants of the general take on what had happened that the terrible irony was how someone who'd thrived in such a high-risk environment had come to grief on an innocuous ski trip. The first part was irrelevant really. There was no irony.
Several people and organizations behaved incredibly well that week in Grenoble. Special praise must be given to Sabine Kehm. I found her tough to deal with working with Schumacher while he competed. That week she was quite magnificent as a shield to the Schumacher family without ever betraying confidence to them amid what must have been an awful time for her personally.
Mercedes and Ferrari also conducted themselves extremely well. They took my calls when they could have ignored them and were sympathetic. Mercedes ultimately felt they should keep largely a dignified silence as events unfolded. Ferrari, with whom Schumacher achieved so much, simply could not do that. It would have been inappropriate. They expressed themselves with tremendous care, feeling and sensitivity. It was a vile biting day in Grenoble on January 3, 2014, Michael Schumacher's 45th birthday. Yet a large Ferrari delegation including many fan club members - the team helped pay to attend - raised tributes outside the hospital in a vigil which lasted all day in the freezing sleet.
Sadly, however, another image will long remain with me. It is one of the reasons I am satisfied Sky's decision not to speculate on Schumacher's health or to relay others' speculations is the right one.
There were only two entrances to the Grenoble Hospital for visitors. Neither allowed cars to park directly outside as they were ambulance bays. It meant Corinna Schumacher had to walk 25 metres each day into a blaze of flashbulbs. I am sad to reflect on the utter insensitivity shown by those who blocked her path and shoved a camera in her face at such a time. There is a lot about that week I don't remember - where I ate, what my hotel was, who I flew with. I wish I could forget how Corinna was treated.