If the Big Dig tunnel collapse that killed Milena Del Valle on July 10 is the biggest Boston news story of 2006, the media story of the year is the Globe reporting — incorrectly — that a safety officer at the site all but predicted Del Valle’s death back in 1999, only to be ignored by his employer at the time, contractor Modern Continental.
TOUGH TALK: Marty Baron is quick to criticize and slow to praise, but he may need to turn a critical eye on himself.
But that botched media account itself remains an open case. Three months after John J. Keaveney was utterly discredited as a whistleblower, the Globe has yet to explain how it came to be suckered by a serial liar. Here’s why the paper hasn’t yet come clean — and why it might never do so.
Too good to be true
Even now, it’s possible to appreciate the seductive quality of Keaveney’s tale. Essentially, Keaveney took an already tragic situation and made it even more painful. Reading the Globe’s description of his alleged warning offered a kind of masochistic satisfaction; it was like pressing a fresh wound, just to make it hurt a bit worse.
No surprise, then, that the July 26 story quickly became the talk of Boston. In Keaveney’s note — which was dated May 17, 1999, supposedly mailed to the Globe without his knowledge, and received on July 25 — he warned Modern Continental that the epoxy-fastened bolts in the tunnel where Del Valle was killed might not hold the ceiling’s 2.5-ton panels. “Should any innocent State Worker [sic] or member of the Public be seriously injured or even worse killed as a result,” he wrote, “I feel that this would be something that would reflect Mentally and Emotionally upon me, and all who are trying to construct a quality Project.” Riveting stuff, worthy of A-1, top-of-the-fold placement. But the clincher came after the jump, where reporter Sean P. Murphy described the epiphany behind Keaveney’s warning:
He said he really began to worry about the ceiling after a third-grade class from his hometown of Norwell came to visit the Big Dig for a tour in spring 1999. He showed the class some concrete panels and pointed to the bolts protruding from the ceiling, explaining that the panels would one day hang from these bolts.
A third-grade girl raised her hand and asked him, ‘Will those things hold up the concrete?’
He started voicing concerns among his colleagues and then to managers after that. ‘It was like the [third graders] had pointed out the emperor has no clothes,’ he said. ‘I said, “Yes, it would hold,” but then I thought about it.’
Over the next few days, however, Keaveney’s story crumbled under the weight of serial inconsistencies and falsehoods. As late as August 4, when a note from Editor Marty Baron appeared in the Globe, the paper seemed to hold out hope that Keaveney and his memo might be vindicated. But the revelations that preceded Baron’s note (key engineering details included in Keaveney’s memo didn’t yet exist at the time he purportedly wrote it; he eventually admitted mailing the document to the Globe himself) and followed it (Keaveney had once been accused of assault; his résumé was filled with fabrications; he’d been fired by his most recent employer) left him with no credibility whatsoever.