This year's Peabody Award winners included efforts by four stations. This week, we look at two of them: Investigating the Fire, the KMGH Denver report that showed how a controlled burn in Colorado turned deadly, and KNXV Phoenix's Ford Escape: Exposing a Deadly Defect, which led to the recall of 700,000 SUVs.
Local News Peabody Winners Up Close, Pt. 1
Four local TV news teams — Scripps’ KMGH Denver and KNXV Phoenix; NBC-owned WVIT Hartford-New Haven, Conn.; and Dispatch’s WTHR Indianapolis — have won Peabody Awards for extensive reports done during 2012.
This week’s Air Check highlights two of those award-winners: Investigating the Fire, the KMGH report that showed how a controlled burn in Colorado turned deadly, and KNXV’s Ford Escape: Exposing a Deadly Defect, which led to the recall of 700,000 SUVs.
Next Tuesday’s column will focus on WVIT’s coverage of the Newtown, Conn. school shootings. You can read about WTHR’s Exposing the IRS, an investigation into a tax loophole that’s costing Americans billions, in a previous Air Check here.
The March 2012 Lower North Fork wildfire outside Denver was among the most destructive in Colorado history, killing three people, leaving dozens homeless and causing more than $11 million in property damage.
Marshall Zelinger and Amanda Kost, investigative reporters for KMGH, Scripps’ ABC affiliate in Denver (DMA 17), exposed government failures in handling the fire from the start. In addition to covering the fire itself, the pair delved deeper into the story behind the blaze, poring through documents and reports in between press conferences, tweeting news at it emerged.
Zelinger and Kost worked exclusively on the fire for weeks, spending excruciatingly long hours uncovering breakdowns in the system time and again.
Between them, they reported three dozen or so fire-related stories over five weeks, breaking stories that showed how the fire, which started as a Forest Service-prescribed burn, would not have turned deadly had officials followed procedures to keep it under control. On top of it, they produced a 30-minute special, Investigating the Fire, which featured original rather than repackaged content, with just slightly more than a week’s notice.
“I don’t even remember those couple of months of my life, it was so intense,” says Kost, a Colorado State University graduate who joined KMGH in 2010 after her first reporting job in Tyler, Texas.
Their work exposed a multitude of failures that led to the fire’s deadly spread. Fire officials failed to monitor the fire for a full three days as required, despite warnings of high winds that ultimately pushed the fire out of its contained area.
When the fire started spreading, responders arrived on the scene without the resources necessary to fight it. Local firefighters were never told how to reach the blaze.
“When time was crucial and high winds were roaring and pushing the fire sideways, there were fire departments lost trying to find it,” Kost says.
Residents reporting the fire were told not to worry. “They kept saying it’s a controlled burn,” she says. “It was a series of breakdowns,” says Kost. “It was failing the public.”
All of which hits particularly hard when you consider victims like Scott Appel, who has nothing left to remember his wife, who died in the fire, but the sunglasses she left in his car. Appel was out-of-town when the blaze hit.
Or when you consider that victims had little recourse to recoup their $11 million in losses from the state, because, at the time of the fire, Colorado had a $600,000 total liability cap.
Zelinger, also a young Coloradan who joined KMGH in 2010, says that, combined with spending weeks with on-site with fire victims, all took an emotional toll, even more so than being in Newtown, Conn., following the school shootings there.
“Every time I read a document I could match it with a face or someone’s property,” Zelinger says. “This could, and should, have been avoidable.”
Colorado lawmakers responded quickly to the investigation. The afternoon after the 30-minute special aired, legislators announced a compensation plan that would lift the $600,000 liability cap and would allow fire victims to pursue their claims outside the courts.
The state also created a special commission to review protocol for managing prescribed burns.
At the same time, though, much has gone unchanged, Zelinger says. Victims’ claims are still held up in court even though that process was supposedly changed. Little resulted from the special commission’s procedural review, he says. Victims themselves have been cutting down trees destroyed in the blaze.
“The immediate results were humbling,” Zelinger says. But that feeling has subsided in the time since because of the commission “dragging its feet,” he says. Although KMGH continues to follow the story, Zelinger says the government has not taken enough steps toward admitting its culpability in the blaze and so avoid similar ones in the future.
“I have not fulfilled our charge of finding out why this happened, who’s responsible — and make sure that this is not going to happen again,” he says.
Saige Bloom, a Phoenix-area teenager killed in a Friday night car crash, “could have ended up being just a weekend 30-second story,” says Joe Ducey, an investigative reporter at KNXV, Scripps’ ABC affiliate in Phoenix (DMA 13). “You hear about accidents all the time, and this was tragic. Another weekend death.”
But the newsroom staff on duty the night Saige died — killed in January 2012 when the accelerator on her used Ford Escape stuck — thought there could be more to this particular story, made particularly chilling by the 911 call made by Saige’s mom, who watched her daughter careen out-of-control from another car.
“This is just an example of asking why,” says Ducey.
By August, after a five-month investigation and nearly two dozen stories, Ducey and his team (producer Lauren Gilger, photographer Gerald Watson and editor Scott Sherman) knew exactly why Saige died — and that she didn’t have to.
Their investigation, Ford Escape: Exposing a Deadly Defect, found that Saige was the victim of Ford’s failure to notify car owners of faulty repairs of 2001-05 Escapes during a recall — and that she was not the only one.
What started as a precursory look at the dangers of unrepaired recalls wound up showing that Saige’s SUV, which she has bought just days before dying in it, had in fact been repaired when Ford recalled the car years before due to sticking accelerators.
But what they also found is that nine months after that initial recall — and after a thousands of Escapes, including Saige’s, were supposedly fixed — Ford issued to dealers an addendum, saying the prescribed remedy to the problem actually created a secondary problem that also caused accelerator to stick. The car manufacturer just never bothered to tell consumers.
“Ford knew about issues with this a long time ago, but didn’t issue a second recall,” Ducey says.
Ducey, who has concentrated primarily on consumer investigations since joining the station in 2006, and his team captured photographic evidence of culprit, capturing video of the Saige’s cars’ mechanisms while it was impounded in a police garage.
“It was one of the few times they could actually see this issue, where this piece gets stuck in the accelerated position,” he says.
Ducey found there had been numerous other accidents like the one that killed Saige, occurring in Escapes that had supposedly been fixed.
The entire crew working on the investigation — Ducey, Gilger, Watson and Sherman — found the story so compelling that they all participated, expanding and conducting research whether their job formally called for it or not.
The team interviewed victims in Houston and St. Louis. Escape owners had filed lawsuits and complaints, but Ford settled them with the stipulation that victims keep the details quiet, Ducey says. They uncovered an accident similar to Saige’s in Pennsylvania, in which an Escape driver was killed after crashing into a school bus.
“The more we scratched the more we found,” says Ducey, a longtime reporter who has been awarded Emmys for his investigations.
The KNXV investigation caused Ford to take action, eventually recalling 485,000 2001-04 Escapes and 217,000 2001-08 Mazda Tributes, which Ford jointly produced using the Escape platform.
“That’s why we do this — to get results,” Ducey says. “Saige’s death may have saved a lot of other people, as it’s really when this company started taking this very seriously.”