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Minnehaha Academy student honored for explosion story podcast

Posted on 24 July 2018 by calvin

A podcast done in the aftermath of a natural gas explosion at Minnehaha Academy, 3100 W. River Pkwy., telling the stories of those who experienced the tragedy, has been named one of the top winners in a student podcast competition sponsored by the New York Times.

Emma Melling (photo right provided) was a senior at the school at the time of the explosion, which occurred on Aug. 2, 2017, and killed two staff members and injured nine other people.

She was at home when the explosion occurred, but heard about it through a phone call.

“I watched it on the news and later went to the school,” Melling said. “It was overwhelming, with a lot of news crews all over the place.”

Receptionist Ruth Berg and custodian John Carlson were killed in the explosion. Melling had done an interview for the school paper a year earlier with Carlson, focusing on his kindness. “I went back and listened to the interview I had done with John, and felt how powerful it was to hear his voice,” Melling recalled. “The idea for the podcast came from that.” She said she wanted to let people tell their stories, in a simple enough way for anyone to listen.

“I interviewed teachers, students, other people in the school’s administration, one of the school’s chefs, the maintenance manager, the building supervisor and the president of the school,” she said.

The podcast, “August 2 stories,” was completed at the end of May this year. That was also when Melling and her journalism instructor, Reid Westrem, found out about the New York Times contest. She entered a five-minute segment from one of the episodes of the podcast.

One of those she interviewed was Laura DuBois, a chef at the school, whose husband Don is the maintenance manager. He was one who first was aware of the danger and got on the radio, warning everyone. ‘Laura was in the kitchen when she heard him yell over the radio to get out,” Melling said. She said her portion of the podcast when she recalled this was very emotional, very open and very honest. She entered a part of that interview, after checking with DuBois if it would be okay. “I wanted to make sure I did not exploit anyone’s story,” Melling said.

Melling, who graduated this spring and is planning on attending Bethel University, said doing the podcast was very difficult. “It has been a very emotional project, and I have carried around the weight of these stories for a whole school year,” she said. “I was the interviewer, and I had not actually gone through it. I felt much honored to hear these stories, and it just felt so great that these adults would open up to me and share their stories in such a personal way.”

Westrem, her teacher, agreed that this was a difficult project. He said those interviewed were talking about near-death experiences, maybe the most traumatic thing they had ever been through.

“We lost our co-workers, Ruth and John. These were stories people often don’t tell, and we are asking them to tell them to an 18-year-old high school student,” he said.

Westrem said that Emma had been his student for three years at that point, and he knew who she was and that he could trust her. “She is exceptionally mature, intelligent, sensitive and very compassionate,” he explained. “She is a good listener, and people trust her. She was the right person for this project.”

Photo left: Instructor Reid Westrem (left) and Emma Melling at her recent graduation. Melling was a Minnehaha Academy student who was named one of the top winners in a student podcast competition sponsored by the New York Times. (Photo submitted)

Part of his job is trying to find the right project for each student, Westrem noted. “I knew the explosion and its aftermath would dominate our year. I am proud of how Emma handled that responsibility. I know she struggled with the trauma for a whole year. Hearing the stories over and over, I am sure, took its toll on her.”

Westrem said that he and Emma agreed the proper way to dignify this subject without cheapening it or doing any injustice was to let people tell their own stories.

“Everyone had a different experience,” he claimed. “We were worried the stories would be the same and people would lose interest. But although they had a common bond, they were so different. The stories are affected by what you bring to the situation, your circumstances at the moment.”

He said he strongly believes one should not do a project for an award, but do it to contribute something to the community. “We feel journalism contributes something of value to the public,” he said, referring to the beliefs he and his students share.

“I have respect for Emma’s work and have always been proud of her, whether she wins a contest or not,” Westrem said. “She always tries to do her best work and is very respectful of other people’s stories. She does them with care.”

Westrem, who spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Czech Republic and has worked as a newspaper editor before turning to teaching as a career, also was a student at Minnehaha Academy in the 1980s. His cousins attended in the 1970s, and his parents in the 1940s.

He said that the tragic event in August 2017 drew graduates of the school back. “It was interesting to see how important this campus was to our community,” he said. “So many came back to visit the building.”

“From the first day of 9th grade, I teach my students that journalism is unique, telling people’s stories, going out to the whole world,” Westrem stated. He said that although he grew up in the world of print journalism, his students need to learn social media and podcasting. “I teach my students to communicate in as many ways as possible to help them in any career they choose.”

The 2018 Student Podcast Contest was the first that the New York Times sponsored and pitted 675 submissions against each other.