Feb 22, 2008
Friday, February 22, 2008
Eileen Welsome had just unearthed the germ of what would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning, life-changing, national attention-getting, important, big news story, but now came the hard part.
Convincing her city editor.
In 1987, that was, briefly, Mike Hall, a genial, hard-smoking man who didn't easily gamble on the hunches of some brash reporter.
Welsome, a tiny, 36-year-old woman who was six months into her job at The Albuquerque Tribune, was one of Hall's newest — and, with her willful tendencies, most challenging — charges.
"I came in, and I was just on fire with this story," recalled Welsome, who back then was nearly always, unnervingly, on fire.
"I said: 'Mike, Mike! I found this great story! The government injected 18 people with plutonium!' "
Hall response was less animated.
"That's a great story, Eileen," he said. "But we hired you as the neighborhood writer."
Yeah, well. Welsome's neighborhood was about to get bigger. But it would still be six more years from the day she found that footnote in a musty Kirtland Air Force Base basement to the day her 45-page series, "The Plutonium Experiment," hit the racks in November 1993 and shocked the nation.
And shocked a lot of people in the journalism world who had not imagined that a small, evening newspaper like The Tribune was capable of producing — or even imagining to produce — such a significant story.
Welsome's investigation uncovered the secret medical testing conducted on unwitting human guinea pigs who were injected with the radioactive substance.
Her story, their stories, gave voice to these once-nameless victims and ushered in a new, albeit brief, period of openness and contrition within the U.S. Department of Energy.
It also amassed shelves of prestigious awards for Welsome and The Tribune in 1994, including the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
In many ways the story of Welsome is the story of The Trib: small, tenacious, talented and caring not a whit that size is supposed to determine how good you are or how far you can reach.
"We were hugely ambitious," said Mike Arrieta-Walden, Hall's eventual successor and Welsome's whipping boy during the most intensive part of the "Plutonium" project.
"It always has to cross your mind that we have to get the paper out each day; we had to cover the daily stories," he said. "On the other hand, we realized we needed to do big stories. We were always going to be different."
Welsome was part of that difference, although to some of her co-workers she was a high-strung reporter who could eviscerate assistant city editors as eagerly as a pit bull mauls a side of beef.
"You always had to take into account that it was Eileen's tenacity and passion that led to this story, and you had to be ready to deal with that," Arrieta-Walden said, waving off any recollection of his own wounding by Welsome, who once chastised his parenting skills and tossed drafts of the project across a conference room floor.
"She was," he said, "just hugely challenging."
The small reporter from the small paper had a lot to prove.
Humanity and inhumanity
Welsome found that footnote purely by accident while she was on the hunt for a different story.
"I was doing a story about Kirtland Air Force Base, because someone said, 'Hey, there's explosives in the water down in the valley,' " she said. "I went down to Kirtland, because there was a thought that the only place these explosives could have come from is Kirtland."
Welsome remembers seeing a large book on the desk of one of the base officials.
"The book had something in it about radioactive animal dumps, and I thought, wow, that's so weird," she said.
She tracked down an Air Force Special Weapons Laboratory official, who confirmed that animal experiments had been performed and allowed her to look through the documents kept in a basement.
It was a Friday afternoon when she began leafing through the thick, crinkled files that smelled of must and old age.
"I realized there wasn't a story for The Tribune on Monday, but I thought, well, I went down here; I had to make this look good," she said. "And then I saw that footnote. I just sat back in my chair."
Footnotes, she had learned, were where companies tucked away bad news. This, it seemed to her, was very bad.
"You have to remember that at the time we were still in a Cold War," she said. "The Berlin Wall had not fallen. We were still building nuclear weapons, and New Mexico was at the heart of the atomic bomb project. So there always was this sense of these subterranean activities that went on there."
The next day, a Saturday, Welsome started digging through the University of New Mexico's Zimmerman Library on her own for anything more on plutonium testing in the 1940s and the human experiments conducted somewhere on 18 somebodies mentioned in the footnote.
It wasn't that easy. And with Hall's chilly response, it wasn't going to be on company time. At least not then.
"But I just said, well, be that as it may, I did my job. But I kept going back to that story," she said. "I interviewed people, sent out a few Freedom of Information Act requests, followed up those requests, went from document to document trying to find out what I could."
The 18 people mentioned in the footnote were listed by code names such as Chi-2, HP-9 and Cal-3.
"That became my biggest task — to find them, to put names to them, to learn who they were and what happened to them," she said. "But these people were injected with plutonium 30, 40 years ago. So I knew it was a nearly impossible task."
Welsome assigned each code name to a yellow sheet of paper and began writing what she knew of each one. Eventually, she learned their ages, ethnicities, the dates they were injected, the dates they died.
"It was like the turtle and the rabbit, and I was the turtle, just trundling along slowly, like walking through the peanut butter," she said. "I never knew if I would succeed. I never knew if I would find these 18 people."
Welsome knew she could get the big story, but it needed those names and faces, it needed their humanity and the inhumanity done to them.
But in 1991 she put away her files, yellow paper and unanswered questions for a yearlong John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.
Once again, surrounded by other fellows from the Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the BBC, Welsome was reminded of just how small The Tribune was.
Walking away from the story she had become so obsessed about might have been what got the story to finally take off.
Opening her old file and the yellow sheets she had not touched in a year, her fresh eyes lighted upon two words she had missed before:
Plutonium patient Cal-3 had lived there, and Welsome, who had spent her college years in Texas, knew the town of Italy was a much smaller haystack to find her needle.
"I was determined to go there and knock on every door until I found Cal-3," she said.
She didn't have to. In a phone call to Italy's City Hall, she described the man she had been seeking for five years: a black man, who would have been in his 80s at the time. He would have been a train porter. He would have had his left leg amputated.
"You're looking for Elmer Allen," a clerk told her. "But he died awhile back. Would you like his wife's number?"
Welsome's hands were shaking as she dialed the number the clerk had given her and heard the gentle voice of Fredna Allen.
"It was one of those cases of serendipity where it seemed like forces greater than myself were at work on this project," Welsome said. "I would have several moments like that from then on."
Welsome bought a plane ticket for Italy with her own credit card.
"That trip to Texas started it all," said Arrieta-Walden, who assumed command of the city desk in 1991. "For a long time we called Eileen's project the 'Elmer Story.' "
From then on, Welsome was allowed to work nearly exclusively on the project.
"Up until then, it was sort of one of Eileen's wild hairs, one of her pipe dreams," she said. "Once we found Elmer, we all lined up behind the story."
Doing so required other staffers to share the load of losing a reporter who covered complicated beats like the Public Service Company of New Mexico and pedophile priests.
"We were a small staff, and that meant even more work, but everyone was committed," Arrieta-Walden said.
The tone for such ambition, Arrieta-Walden said, was set by Tribune Editor Tim Gallagher, who in January 1987, at age 30, had become one of the youngest editors in the country.
"He used to say he wanted people to do the best work while they were here, and certainly that's what we tried to do," Arrieta-Walden said.
But what was and wasn't best for the project was argued, sometimes bitterly, between the soft-spoken, coolheaded Arrieta-Walden and the sharp-tongued and sleep-deprived Welsome.
"Eileen lived that project. She was consumed by it," Arrieta-Walden said. "I remember a Saturday afternoon when she called in a panic because she thought something wasn't making sense. That was not necessarily atypical."
But the stress of such a huge project was just beginning.
"This was the story that almost crushed the little paper," Welsome said.
"If I had known the story was going to grow so large, they would have just had me in a gurney, shooting me up with Valium," she said. "I don't think I could have emotionally gone through it. It was just too immense and overwhelming."
Power of journalism
"The Plutonium Experiment" ran for three days beginning Nov. 15, 1993, in a startling, spare black-and-white presentation crafted by designer Lara Edge that in its time was nearly as groundbreaking as the story itself.
Welsome was relieved.
"I felt that at the time I had done a story that allowed me the privilege of witnessing the power of journalism," she said.
That power appeared to short out, however, when the project failed to elicit the response Welsome and others at The Tribune had anticipated.
"I expected the phones to ring off the hook, but there was not one call that day," she said.
That night, though, the Associated Press called for more information on the families of the five patients she had identified.
After that, the phones wouldn't stop ringing.
"I remember coming into the paper one day and had 50 pink slips, messages I had to respond to," she said. "I sat down and wept."
So many faxes were coming in that the newsroom ran out of paper, she recalled.
"Everyone was answering phones. There was a crush of mail by media inquiries from Nepal and Sweden and Australia and Japan, England, Germany, France, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico — should I go on?" she said.
"It was just overwhelming the amount of attention that story got, and it was very hard for me to resume my work."
With the project published, the workload seemed to increase, Arrieta-Walden said.
"Suddenly, The Albuquerque Tribune became the repository for all the other radiation experiments, and there were thousands," he said. "We felt responsible for following up on them and also for keeping an eye on Congress and what they would do about this. It was huge."
Welsome was in a New York hotel room with husband and journalist Jim Martin on a trip to speak about the project when she received word she and The Tribune had won the Pulitzer, the most coveted prize in journalism.
"I guess it was Mike Walden or Tim or someone who called, and then they dropped the phone and ran off and hung up the phone on me," she said, laughing.
"I just remember thinking that I hadn't let down a whole bunch of people, those people who the government had done such wrong to; my colleagues at The Tribune," she said. "And I thought that now we could all go on with our lives."
But that was not to be.
"Life did not return to normalcy for a very long time for me," she said.
Most of the journalists who worked on "The Plutonium Experiment" have long since left The Tribune.
Arrieta-Walden, now the managing editor for online content at the Oregonian in Portland, counts his days at The Tribune as some of his best journalistically.
"When people ask what I was most proud of while at The Tribune, I don't point to the Pulitzer," he said. "It was how we could change things, make improvements. Eileen's project certainly did that, but so did so many other stories we did about the vulnerable people who weren't being served.
"So to me, while the Pulitzer was thrilling and special, there's always been great journalism being done there, always these quirky reporters doing great work. It was an amazing place to be."
Welsome left The Tribune shortly after winning the Pulitzer. She spent the next six years writing "The Plutonium Files," a book that expanded upon the project and included many more radiation experiments done surreptitiously.
She also wrote a book on Pancho Villa. She is now at work on a third, a novel this time, about a uranium miner and his family in Grants. She recently ended a job as a writer for the Texas Observer magazine.
At age 56, she has mellowed now — or so she says.
The Pulitzer, she said, is mostly memory now.
"It's had no impact financially, and I don't know that it has had any influence on my ability to write books," she said. "People call me back more easily than they did before, so it's helped me in actual reporting."
She recently moved from Austin to Colorado, where her husband is an assistant city editor with the Rocky Mountain News in Denver — a rare time in which the couple actually share the same ZIP code.
She dreams of moving some day to the Mesilla Valley in southern New Mexico, a place she says speaks to her soul. Her days are still filled with writing, fervently and tenaciously.
She mourns the passing of The Tribune, a place where she made history by uncovering history.
"A lot of time has passed, but in many ways it's a lot like the era in which the plutonium experiment took place," she said. "It's a time of war and a time of great government secrecy. But who's going to start following those footnotes? We have to hope that something will emerge to replace newspapers, but the loss of papers of The Tribune's caliber is a great loss, not only to the community but to the country and to our understanding of history. It's a loss to all of us. I really feel that way."