ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - In July 1987, newly hired Albuquerque Tribune reporter Eileen Welsome was thumbing through declassified government documents on radioactive waste dumps at the local Air Force base when a footnote caught her eye. It was about plutonium experiments on humans.
Stunned, she went to her city editor with the story idea. As Welsome recalls it, he replied, "Great story, Eileen, but we hired you as the neighborhoods reporter."
It could have been the end of the story, but for Welsome, it was the beginning. She worked fitfully on the story for five years, then intensively through most of 1993, all for an afternoon daily newspaper with a circulation of 35,000.
In November, Welsome's odyssey climaxed with publication of a three-part series ripping the veil off one of America's darkest secrets.
Her stories told of how 18 U.S. citizens were injected with plutonium, one of the world's most toxic substances, by their government without their informed consent during the middle 1940s. The experiments, aimed at helping officials set radiation safety standards for nuclear workers, occurred just as the Nuremberg trials were spelling out the horrors of Nazi concentration camp experiments on Jews.
That the plutonium experiments had occurred wasn't itself hot news. In 1986, Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey had outlined the experiments in a congressional report. Science Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based magazine, had written about the experiments as long ago as 1976.
But Welsome broke ground by uncovering the identities of five of the victims, all now dead, tracking down their survivors, obtaining their medical records, and telling harrowing accounts of how the victims' lives changed after the injections.
A few days after the series appeared, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary said she was "appalled" by the experiments and pledged to release as many documents about them as possible. Within weeks, the Energy Department acknowledged that the government had conducted radiation experiments on 800 citizens. O'Leary pledged to seek compensation for the victims.
By year's end, Welsome and other reporters had uncovered details of several other experiments. They included 235 babies in five states who were injected with radioactive iodine, 100 retarded Massachusetts children who had been fed radioactive cereal, 800 pregnant Tennessee women who had been exposed to radioactive substances and eight people injected with various isotopes of strontium at University of California Hospital at San Francisco.
The story topped the front pages of national newspapers, hit the cover of Newsweek and became grist for radio and television talk shows from coast to coast.
Welsome gives O'Leary credit for having gone further than any other Energy secretary in admitting government wrongdoing and in shedding light on the past. But she criticizes the secretary for refusing to release the names of the remaining 13 victims, and is highly skeptical that all of the information about past experiments will ever come out.
"I think people are shredding over at DOE now," she said.
The 42-year-old Welsome said she stuck with the story out of a sense of old-fashioned outrage. For her, that was nothing new. Since coming to the Tribune from the San Antonio, Texas, Express-News, she has exposed corruption and financial mismanagement at the state's largest utility and biggest real estate developer, uncovered large-scale wildlife poaching for profit, and helped break a priest sex scandal.
What makes her tick is a strong sense of injustice, she told the John S. Knight Fellowship program for journalists, in 1991.
"The abuse of a whole class of people or those who are vulnerable, whether it be 10 patients or ratepayers or our own legacy in terms of our wildlife - I can't stand it. Nothing makes me angrier than exploitation of defenseless creatures," she said.
Welsome's first real break in the story came in summer 1992, when she was able to hunt down the family of Elmer Allen, a railroad porter whose code name for injections was "Cal-3." A DOE document she'd obtained earlier mentioned a letter to "Cal's' physician in Italy, Texas, a small town south of Dallas.
Figuring that the patient might also live there, she called Italy's city hall. Officials directed her to Allen's family. It turned out Elmer had died in 1991, 44 years after he'd been injected with plutonium and had his left leg amputated because doctors believed he had the usually fatal disease of bone cancer. The fact that she might have found Elmer when he was alive had she started work on the story six years ago made her "heartsick," she said.
She found the other four victims' families in similar shoe-leather fashion: through government documentation, interviews with cemetery officials, phone calls, handwritten notes, letters and visits to museums. Like many a crusading reporter before her, she began to identify with the victims and their families.
"They became my family," she explained later. "We are knit together not only by the story, but by the media blitz."
The blitz has hit Welsome hard. She's had trouble sleeping and lost five pounds from her already slender 5-foot-1-inch frame. Her husband, Jim Martin, an assistant city editor with the morning Albuquerque Journal, has told her that her wrists look thin enough to slice a ham.
"Public exposure is one of the most frightening experiences for me," Welsome said. "What this is teaching me is that I can speak publicly and move ahead with courage.
"You think people who are suddenly thrust into the limelight are really strong people, somehow bigger than life. I think they are just people who are singled out to do a job."
Tony Davis reports for the Albuquerque Tribune.