Our short bio: We’re Neil Bedi, Jonathan Capriel and Kathleen McGrory, reporters at the Tampa Bay Times. We investigated a power plant accident that killed five people and discovered the company could have prevented it. The workers were cleaning a massive tank at Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station. Twenty minutes into the job, they were burned to death by a lava-like substance called slag. One left a voicemail for his mother during the accident, begging for help. We pieced together what happened that day, and learned a near identical procedure had injured Tampa Electric employees two decades earlier. The company stopped doing it for least a decade, but resumed amid a larger shift that transferred work from union members to contract employees. We also built an interactive graphic to better explain the technical aspects of the coal-burning power plant, and how it erupted like a volcano the day of the accident.

Link to the story




(our fourth reporter is out sick today)


EDIT: Thanks so much for your questions and feedback. We're signing off. There's a slight chance I may still look at questions from my phone tonight. Please keep reading.

Comments: 2897 • Responses: 24  • Date: 

dont_engage2597 karma

Has there been any backlash for you as a result of this story?

KatMcGrory2555 karma

Hey there. Thanks for starting us off. No, there hasn't been much backlash. Most of our readers welcomed the in-depth analysis of the accident.

dont_engage1689 karma

As a student of journalism myself, I'm impressed with the level of detail you put into the report! I found your diagrams very illuminating.

NeilBedi1864 karma

Thank you! Our editors pushed pretty hard for those diagrams. The technical aspects of this accident are pretty tough to understand (we had to talk to a lot of different people to get a clear understanding) and we wanted readers to not struggle while reading.

PacamaHM2311 karma

Oh god, I just searched up a photo of slag. Absolutely horrifying. My question is, would there have been any way to save the workers, even if say a medical team were there? In the article it states that it was a pool of the lava-like substance 6 inches deep and 40 feet wide, seems like it'd be almost impossible to somehow grab the workers out? Plus if it's lava like then it's also extremely viscous, would it make it even more difficult to pull the workers out?

NeilBedi2398 karma

Records show the responding medical team did fight hard despite the impossible situation. Two died on the scene, but the three that died later were pulled out, wrapped with burn blankets, and taken to the hospital.

jug_of_what1177 karma

Is there any chance in hell somebody will be held personally responsible?

NeilBedi1458 karma

Right now OSHA is investigating the accident and would decide who is responsible. If they find someone responsible, they could refer it for criminal prosecution. But the investigation will take some time since the accident was so severe, probably around 6 months.

DEverett13699 karma

I haven't worked in this industry but I have worked around lots large equipment and sites where safety is a major concern. I am baffled by what happened here. This seems like such a blatantly dangerous undertaking I'm amazed it happened once let alone "hundreds of times".

If you're working near a crane with a properly secured load, you still never stand or work near that suspended load, no matter how well secured or light it may be. How did anyone think that working under thousands of gallons of liquid slag was reasonable? Oh, and the only thing holding it up was a mass of solidified slag?

Forget the safety guidelines, where was the common sense?

NeilBedi517 karma

A lot of people we interviewed asked the very same question.

BilliePilgrimm565 karma

Those graphics were very helpful. Its a shame that basic LOTO procedures were not followed. Why were both contractors in the area at the same time?

NeilBedi320 karma

Sounds like the two contractors were doing separate tasks. One actually specialized in water blasting and was trying to blast out the blockage at the bottom of the tank. The second was a clean up crew that would pull out/clear out smaller pieces of debris as they were broken up.

roger_ranter550 karma

“Mom, help me,” he begged, steam hissing in the background. “Mom, I’m burning.”


Horrible event, great reporting and coverage. I especially liked the web friendly layout and the infographic. Who did the infographic? I'd like to know more about the production of such an effective bit of media...

NeilBedi111 karma

I did the infographic, mostly hand coded with the help of some javascript libraries. I explain a bit more on /r/webdev


yreg388 karma

/u/IAmAMods could you please flair these people up?

NeilBedi308 karma

yes please, I think I already have some but /u/jcapriel and /u/KatMcGrory could use some

ONLY-NFL121 karma


NeilBedi146 karma

Call a reporter.

Skunk7374 karma

The revenue vs. profit comparison was rather intriguing. How much of the cost-cutting was attributed to corner-cutting of safety procedures?

NeilBedi67 karma

It's not exactly clear. We do know from public testimony in 2013 that a $40 million shortfall from the recession was recovered through 200 layoffs (8% of the company). But many of these cuts are in broad categories in the budget records.

funny_leone38 karma

Not a question. A huge thank you from half way around the world, for keeping journalism alive.

A broad question: What keeps you going?

NeilBedi101 karma

My dog is my support system. http://imgur.com/a/WNJv2

mojo4mydojo33 karma

How long was your investigation?

Do you have to 'prove' to your editors your case, much like a lawyer, before they publish to reduce the chance of libel/legal action?

Have you ever encountered having stories rejected as they are no longer 'topical' and if so, how do you move on from that, feeling perhaps justice wasn't served?

NeilBedi55 karma

The accident happened on June 29. We started working on a first story that published two weeks after. Then this story published a monthish after that.

Our editor was actually a strong proponent for this story. We do send the story to our lawyer and make sure she doesn't have any issues with the story.

I honestly haven't had an issue with stories getting rejected. My editor is pretty great and open to ideas. (He will shutdown bad ideas though, and generally rightfully so)

abraun934629 karma

I'm a high school journalism teacher. What advice can you offer about investigative journalism? What was the hardest part of this report?

NeilBedi32 karma

Advice: Be persistent. Keep digging.

Hardest part: it was all pretty hard to be honest. Getting in touch with experts who knew about this specific technology, building the graphic in a easy to understand way, analyzing all of the relevant records to find useful information.

karanz21 karma

What would you say was the most dangerous part of investigating this story? Also, were you exposed to the slag at all?

NeilBedi53 karma

Not much danger and no exposure to slag for us. Just lots of interviews, analyzing records, and reviewing power engineering textbooks.

EnderWiggin3rd18 karma

Is there any possibility of something like this happening else where in the states at similar power facilities? Is anyone looking into any other power facilities?

NeilBedi23 karma

From Kat above:

One of the first things we learned is that power plants are generally very safe. The procedure that caused the June 29 accident was specific to coal-fired power plants with a certain type of boiler (called a wet-bottom boiler). There aren't that many of them left.

5387741900511 karma

If a human being negligently caused the death of five people they would likely go to prison for many years and possibly until they died. Do you think it's possible for a corporation to receive a similar punishment?

To me it seems like human beings are responsible for this tragedy but they will hide behind the corporation to avoid individual responsibility. Do you see signs of this happening?

NeilBedi9 karma

It's not yet clear if an investigation will find someone at fault. OSHA is conducting an investigation but it typically takes 6 months for a case with this many deaths.

RedTeeRex7 karma

When preventable accident cases happen, who gets the payout after all the legal stuff?

NeilBedi12 karma

Depends if lawsuits are filed and what the court finds, it's different on a case by case basis

jgm02281 karma

What do you think the lack of union representation had to do with contributing to the accident? Did workers protest over the reintroduction of this practice and weren't heard due to a lack of a union?

NeilBedi1 karma

There is union representation actually. They filed a grievance in 2015 about this kind of work. We dive a little into that in the story.

FreemanPontifex-7 karma

How do you plan on enjoying what's left of your life before you get assassinated in a "burglary"?

NeilBedi19 karma

I don't think that's a worry, journalists publish investigations like this all the time. There was a worry that reporters were being bugged back in the 80s (maybe 70s) when the paper published the investigation on Scientology. The office would actually get swept for bugs back then.

IronRT-8 karma

Would you consider this company the Benghazi of power plants?

NeilBedi2 karma

I'm not quite sure what this means

Game_GOD-52 karma

Jeez, people think they're important enough to start AMAs for everything. What's next? "Hey Reddit, I put my toilet paper under, not over. Ask me anything!"

NeilBedi27 karma

Blasphemy. Toliet paper should never go under.