Fred Zipp

Editor, Austin American-Statesman

Austin, TX

[TX-E 0201]

Several months after I started as a reporter in Beaumont, Texas, in 1979, a couple things happened.

First of all, it started to rain one night. And before the rain stopped, we had – if I recall correctly – we had had something like 10 inches in 10 hours of rain, which even by the standards of the Gulf Coast was unusual. So that created rising water and, of course, a great news story – people being forced out of their homes and so forth.

Toward deadline, the night that was going on, a tanker – an oil tanker – exploded at a shipping terminal about a mile away from the bureau that I – where I worked. So I heard it on the scanner, called in the news to the city desk, and was dispatched over to the terminal to try to figure out what was going on. And it was pretty clear, immediately, that there were people on board, and that they had – that there were casualties. So by this point, of course, it’s getting even later, and this was long before the existence of cell phones, so I had to find a pay phone and sit on it, so nobody else could use it, so I could talk to the city desk about what little information was available from the people who ran the oil terminal.

And about every 10 or 15 minutes – even more rapidly as the evening went on – I would call the city desk and, sort of, parcel out little bits of information and dictate the story to them. And – if I recall correctly – ultimately several Korean sailors were killed on the boat.

The next night, it had cleared off and it was a beautiful day, and I was sort of wrapping up for the week, and the city desk called me and let me know there was a guy at a bar down the road from the bureau where I worked – who had called in to say he was on the ship, which I recall was called the Sea Tiger, when it blew up. And he was ready to give me his first-person account of the night’s event.

So I went to the bar and interviewed the guy for several hours, and got just great stuff. That was on a Friday night. And drank a few beers – went home to sleep – probably hadn’t gotten much sleep for two days at that point. Woke up Saturday morning to write the story, and it occurred to me that maybe the – maybe the details were just a little too good on what this guy had told me.

So I went back to the terminal, and asked whether it had a sign-in sheet for people who had come in and out of the gate. And they said yes they had a sign-in sheet. I asked could – is impossible to look at the sheet? And they showed it to me. And the name of the guy, who I had interviewed in the bar the night before, was not on the sheet. So I asked is it possible that somebody could’ve gotten through the guard shack without signing the sheet, and they assured me that that was just not possible.

So I called the city desk, by now it’s a Saturday afternoon, and, after a little bit of discussion, we decided that – good as the eyewitness account from the night before was – probably no sense in coming in to write it, cause, we just didn’t know if it was true or not. And that was a – pretty much a huge learning experience for me.

We can invest a whole lot of work in stories we think are just great, but we have to have the courage to pull the plug on them if we’re not absolutely certain they’re – they’re accurate. So –- and so I learned early on, and I’ve tried to apply it often since then.