2019 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

Why Disasters Happen

About the Project

Why did a bridge fall down in Italy? Why did Notre-Dame catch fire? Why did a enormous, muddy dam collapse in Brazil? Why did two new 737 planes crash within months?

These disasters were not accidents. They were the result of deliberate decisions to save money, to build and maintain essential infrastructure without proper safeguards and, in many cases, to ignore expert warnings. “Probably they underestimated the importance of the information,” said an Italian professor who warned authorities of troubling signs of corrosion on the Genoa bridge a year before it collapsed.

We recreated each of these disasters by seamlessly bringing together witness accounts, deep technical reporting and interactive graphics. Some pieces were primarily written; others led with animated visualizations. In each case, we went beyond the hand-waving and misdirection issued by authorities seeking to avoid blame. Pilots, mining safety specialists, fire safety engineers and other experts helped us unearth exactly what happened and carefully explain it to readers.

We put readers in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 Max to help them understand the desparate choices the pilots faced when automated software spun out of control. Less than 36 hours after the Notre-Dame fire, we published a three-dimensional model to help readers visualize the spread of the fire and the disastrous assumptions made by safety planners.

A multidisciplinary team of reporters used cartographic techniques to analyze mining dams in Brazil — emulating the flow of water over a surface — to estimate the threat they posed: 27 similar dams that threaten more than 100,000 people downstream.

As public infrastructure gets more opaque, journalists must work harder to explain how it works and who it works for. The strong response from readers to these pieces is a testament to the power of visual and interactive journalism to clarify complex systems and hold the builders and their institutions accountable.