While reporter Will Englund, fresh from the Baltimore Sun's Moscow bureau, walked the newly created waterfront beat in September 1995, he heard the rumblings of a story.
There were troubles, he heard, with the scrapping of the USS Coral Sea in the city's harbor: The man in charge was ready to abandon the effort and transport the ship to India.
So Englund, 45, decided to write about Baltimore's shipbreaking industry, a little noticed but big business in which companies buy retired Navy ships and take them apart piece by piece for scrap metal. "I did a nice little feature story and thought that was the end," says Englund, who joined the Sun in 1977.
But then the tips began to filter in. Englund followed up on tales sources told of subpar safety and environmental standards at shipbreaking yards across the country. "I realized there's a problem here," he says.
In an April 1996 Sun article, Englund detailed his discoveries: wall-to-wall asbestos and other toxic chemicals on the ships; workers cutting through steel with torches in unventilated darkness; and shifty businessmen who cut corners, risking workers' safety to ensure profits.
He revealed a trail of shipbreaking lawsuits across the country that nobody had seemed to notice. The piece piqued Sun Editor John Carroll's interest. "He said there was a bigger, better project there and just told me I was going to pursue it," says Englund. "I went from there."
At Carroll's suggestion, Englund took a week and searched for new angles. The editor was dazzled by his ideas. Investigative reporter Gary Cohn, who had recently coauthored a Sun series about the CIA-trained Honduran army, came on board. "We tried to put it in a broad context," says Carroll. "At that time we didn't know it would lead all the way to India. These things can grow on you."
When "The Shipbreakers" ran a year and a half later, in December 1997, it detailed dangers to workers and the environmentcaused by the industry from Baltimore to Calcutta. And in April it earned the Sun a Pulitzer.
The investigation found that naval and Defense Department oversight of the scrapping industry was lax; ship scrappers, some with histories of fraud and payoffs to government workers, were successfully avoiding regulators; and chemical runoff was polluting the water at shipbreaking sites.
Then there was the human element. Workers were being exploited: They breathed air filled with asbestos, often with no respirators in sight; and with insufficient training and safety equipment, many were injured — some even killed — while on the job.
Before "The Shipbreakers," reporting on the industry had been sparse, so Cohn and Englund built their own database and searched for sources. Once they got a list of retired Navy ships from the Defense Department, the breadth of the story became more clear. Ship scrapping yards throughout the country had problems.
"We were very impressed with how the Sun reporters had taken a good local story and pursued it to national and even international scope," says Paul C. Tash, executive editor and deputy chairman of the St. Petersburg Times and chairman of the Pulitzer jury on investigative reporting.
Englund and Cohn investigated shipbreaking yards from Rhode Island to San Francisco, speaking with owners and searching court files. "The most difficult but probably the most important part was finding workers and convincing them to talk on the record," says Cohn, 46. "We spent a lot of time knocking on doors, telling them we wanted to hear their story. Slowly we built up trust."
They uncovered, for example, the story of Raul Mendoza, who, while working without safety equipment, plunged 30 feet from a girder, landed on his chest and split his pelvis. He died in 1995 on Christmas Eve.
"There was an incredible human component," says Rebecca Corbett, assistant managing editor for projects and the series' editor. "We wanted to make sure that what readers went away with was visceral."
As the complex tale unfolded the Sun reporters knew they were on to something big. "We were determined to look at every place, not just one or two," says Cohn. "And every place we looked we found serious problems that amazed us."
After six months of investigating shipbreaking yards across the United States, the reporters traveled to India, the world's shipbreaking hub. There, more than 30,000 shipbreakers worked under terrible conditions. Paid only $1.50 a day, the laborers lived in shacks assembled along the shipyard with no showers or toilets. They endured broken bones, smashed skulls, burns and disease.
"What made this story so different was that it was on virgin turf," says Corbett. "It was something with global reach, which provided another dimension."
Besides hitting the industry hard for shoddy safety standards, the Sun's investigation took a swipe at the military. The Navy, focused on profit, was selling to the highest bidders. As Englund and Cohn put the story together, the Navy largely ignored questions about its selling off of old ships.
But the government reacted once the series ran: Taking note of the atrocious work environment in India, the Navy abruptly stopped sending ships overseas for scrapping; the Defense Department ordered a study on how to scrap vessels safely; and the project sparked congressional hearings.
Englund has returned to Moscow but visited Baltimore to celebrate winning the Pulitzer. He's hopeful that changes will sweep as far as India. And Cohn, for his part, is still aglow. "You always hope if you do a good job on a story it will bring about reforms," says Cohn. "And it's been gratifying to see all this interest.
The Baltimore Sun wins a Pulitzer for its series on shipbreaking, a little-known business in which companies break up retired Navy ships for scrap metal.