Tiny reoprter at a small paper writes a big story
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
"I think people are
shredding over at DOE now," she said.
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
What makes her tick is a strong
sense of injustice, she told the John S. Knight Fellowship program
for journalists, in 1991.
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.