Barrow paper rushes out special on killer bug crisis

Mail: "once in a lifetime story"

"It is one of those momentous stories that happens once in a lifetime," said assistant editor, news, Steve Hartley, describing the feelings of the team at Barrow’s North-West Evening Mail dealing with coverage of the outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease in the town.

As a faulty air-conditioning unit in an alleyway in the town centre was blamed for spewing out the deadly droplets carrying the disease, the Evening Mail team geared up for a blanket coverage response.

News of the outbreak broke "out of the blue" on Friday afternoon. Hartley said: "Everyone just dropped what they were doing and got onto it. There was a press conference at 4.30pm and we had reporters there and out on the streets of Barrow getting the reactions of the public and from councillors."

On Saturday morning, two hours earlier than the normal single Saturday edition is printed, the Evening Mail had 1,100 copies of a special edition on the streets of the town centre.

"Unfortunately, because of the nature of the story, the centre was somewhat deserted at the time, but we nevertheless managed to sell nearly 700 of them," said editor Steve Brauner.

He did not know about the crisis until Saturday lunchtime when he phoned home from Hanover where he was watching Manchester United play SV Hamburg.

But deputy editor Bill Myers was able to tell him that the special edition contained five pages of news and reaction to the growing number of local people being taken to hospital, some in a serious condition, with the disease.

"It was a massive story for Barrow," said Hartley. "We told people what to do if they thought they had symptoms and the background to the disease." There were press conferences throughout Saturday and Sunday and by Monday morning the Evening Mail had seven pages on the outbreak, leading with the exclusive revelation of the name and picture of the council employee suspended in the aftermath.

The Morecambe Bay Health Trust gave reporters full access to patients and their relatives.

The newspaper was even allowed onto hospital wards and into laboratories as tests were carried out on suspected victims.

As the outbreak peaked this week, the Evening Mail was waiting to see whether there would be corporate manslaughter charges brought against the council.

Hartley said a lot of the victims were readers and the newspaper had tried to allay their fears and not scaremonger.

Brauner said: "People are angry, but there is no panic. All this talk of ‘streets of fear’ is over the top.

"But they are very angry because they don’t understand why this has been allowed to happen, why the risk of such a well-known disease in this type of air-conditioning system was not properly monitored."

By Jean Morgan

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