IT WAS A TOUGH ASSIGNMENT. Not as loathsome as tracking down a Nazi war criminal. But definitely not as simple as dialing up your average retired CEO and asking him to reflect on his career.
Warren Martin Anderson presided over the deadliest chemical accident in modern history: namely, the 1984 explosion at a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, which spewed poisonous methyl isocyanate gas into the air, killing several thousand people and injuring tens of thousands. He became a fugitive from Indian law enforcement authorities. Now eighty-four years old, Anderson has also been a fugitive from the American press for nearly two decades.
Immediately after the accident, as CEO of Union Carbide, which owned 50.9 percent of the company that operated the Bhopal factory, Anderson flew to India, was promptly arrested, charged with homicide, and released on bail. But rather than play along with judicial proceedings that would likely land him in an Indian prison for many years, he flew back to the United States. He and Union Carbide soon became defendants in scores of civil lawsuits filed in the United States, which were consolidated in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. One by one, Judge John Keenan dismissed the lawsuits in deference to efforts by the Indian government to represent victims in litigation against Union Carbide in India. In 1989, that litigation resulted in a settlement deal, according to which Union Carbide would pay the Indian government $470 million. The Supreme Court of India ratified the agreement in 1991. But it also ordered a criminal prosecution of Union Carbide, Anderson, and other former employees to proceed in Bhopal district court. None of the defendants showed up for any proceedings, and in 1992 the district court declared Anderson, et al., “absconders” from justice and ordered the confiscation of Union Carbide’s remaining assets in India. Since then, lawyers representing disaster victims have filed additional complaints against Anderson and Union Carbide in U.S. courts, seeking compensation for damages and demanding cleanup of the area.
Anderson has an unlisted phone number. So I decided to contact him through one his lawyers, William Krohley, of Kelley Drye & Warren, in New York City. Krohley has defended Anderson and Union Carbide since shortly after the Bhopal accident. Krohley seems to specialize in defending ecologically dubious corporations. He represented Dow against Vietnam War veterans who brought a class action suit against the manufacturers of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, and he represented a Birmingham, Alabama, company sued for billions of dollars involving silicone breast implants gone awry. When I called his office, his secretary answered and told me Krohley was busy. I left my name and number with her. Then I followed up with an e-mail to Krohley asking if he could help me put in an “earnest request” to interview Anderson. Krohley did not respond to either my phone call or e-mail.
So, I decided to write Anderson a letter. Public records indicated he and his wife, Lillian, owned two properties, one near the Long Island shore in Bridgehampton, New York, and one close to the Atlantic Ocean in Vero Beach, Florida. In the letter I politely requested an interview in which he would be free to share his thoughts and reflections about the Bhopal disaster and its aftermath. I wanted to know how the Bhopal accident had affected his life. Did it haunt him? Or was a man really capable of forgetting about all those methyl isocyanate-induced deaths?
Anderson did not write back. With my deadline looming, I decided to drive from Miami to Vero Beach to try at least to confirm his whereabouts and, if possible, attempt an interview. An acquaintance recommended some motels. I booked a room at the cheapest on the list, the Vero Beach Inn, situated right on the Atlantic Ocean in what’s known as Central Beach.
I didn’t know whether Anderson would be in town when I arrived. For all I knew, he and his wife were on a cruise ship in the South Pacific or the Mediterranean. And I had no idea what he looked like, other than that he was a tall octogenarian. I also didn’t know his mental state. Perhaps he wasn’t capable of remembering.
Vero Beach, it turns out, is an excellent hideaway for retired CEOs seeking anonymity. The city is located on the east coast of Indian River County, one of Florida’s least populated but wealthiest, thanks to a vast agricultural sector that is famous for its Indian River grapefruit and oranges. As of last November, Republicans outnumbered Democrats on the voter rolls almost two to one. The electorate and the political establishment are fiercely anti-development and continue to guard the county’s rustic oceanfront from high-rise condo builders, who have conquered counties to the south, such as Palm Beach. Vero Beach zoning laws prohibit buildings over three stories. Thus the shoreline, with its preponderance of quaint wooden houses, bears a closer resemblance to Cape Cod’s than to the crassly opulent mansions of Palm Beach.
The Vero Beach police have a reputation for scrutinizing outsiders and keeping even the locals edgy with frequent traffic stops. I had been inside the Vero Beach city limits for about five minutes when a cop pulled me over, right before midnight. I had just exited I-95 and was heading east toward the beach when I saw the blue lights flashing behind me.
“You know why I pulled you over?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
He informed me that the tiny light bulb that illuminates my license plate was out. “Any reason you’re not wearing your seat belt?” he inquired.
I told him I had taken it off after stopping my vehicle, in order to more easily pull out my wallet, which contained my driver’s license. He grunted skeptically, then disappeared to his squad car. He returned ten minutes later and said he was going to issue me a warning, which he handed me in the form of a pink slip of paper.
“Down here it’s very WASPy. People have a Greenwich, Connecticutty way of doing things here,” explains Kathryn Collins, the social editor of Vero Beach Magazine, a glossy monthly featuring many pages with photos of people attending fundraising dinners, galas, golf tournaments, and other benefits. “People are very private here.” Collins had never heard of Warren Anderson, much less mingled with him.
Collins’s assessment of Vero Beach’s role as a hideaway was corroborated by Penny Chandler, executive director of the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce, who also had never heard of Warren and Lillian Anderson. But her ignorance of them did not surprise her. It is typical of famous CEOs who have retired in Vero Beach. They “want their anonymity,” she says. “They really enjoy the community and being able to walk around without getting clobbered by the media.”
As fate would have it, the Vero Beach Inn was about a mile south of the address I had acquired for the Andersons. It placed them in a small seaside subdivision named Sea Forest. Situated between Highway A1A and the ocean just north of the Vero Beach line, Sea Forest is in the tiny municipality of Indian River Shores. Bordering it on the south is a condominium development called the Fountains, and to the north across Beachcomber Lane stand the cottage-like boutiques of the Village Shops.
Sea Forest is a quaint enclave by Vero Beach standards. It lacks the sprawling architectural fabulousness, on-site golf courses, and intimidating security guard presence of posher settlements like Windsor and John’s River Island, which are located on A1A a few miles north. But behind the red and white bed of flowers surrounding the oval green and white sign at Sea Forest’s leafy entrance, two unmanned dark green electronically controlled metal gates prevent random vehicular and pedestrian access to the neighborhood. Inside, amid gangly live oaks and tall sabal palm trees, several dozen identical suburban-style homes, adorned with meticulously landscaped lawns, are packed together on small lots.
In 2005, the Indian River County property appraiser valued the Andersons’ 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom home (with swimming pool) at $431,980. They bought it in 1988 for $304,800. No vehicles are registered in Florida under Warren Anderson’s name, but three are under Lillian’s: a 1994 Chevrolet Geo Metro, a 1995 Buick sedan, and a 2005 Cadillac.
My first morning in town I located Sea Forest, and then from my cell phone, called a number my research had turned up for the Andersons’ address. Like most journalists, I had experienced good luck in my career just phoning people, being polite, and asking for an interview. If I was lucky enough to get him on the phone, maybe in ten minutes I would be sitting in the Andersons’ living room, even kitchen, chatting with the fabled CEO who had been to India and back.
A woman with a melodic voice answered. It was Lillian. I introduced myself.
“Oh, I heard about you,” she said, her voice sagging with disappointment.
My letter must have arrived, I surmised.
“Mr. Anderson doesn’t do interviews,” she quickly added, “That was a long time ago. We’re in our eighties!”
But one never hears her husband’s perspective, I pressed.
“He went over there and tried to help. But they didn’t want his help,” she declared, referring to her husband’s trip to India after the accident, during which he was arrested. “They made a pawn out of him.”
“Some people think he’s more like an ogre,” I replied.
“That’s unfortunate, because he’s a fine man,” she said. She suggested her husband was a little fuzzy in the head. “One doesn’t always remember things so well anymore,” she told me. “That was a long time ago.”
Then Mrs. Anderson said she hoped someone would do some “good journalism” on the subject, but didn’t give me a chance to continue trying. “Good luck on your project,” she added and hung up.
I decided not to call back. I had written Anderson a letter, I had called him, I had spoken with his wife, who had, in the end, hung up on me. The man would not even come to the phone. One more call and I would become the harassing reporter.
The next morning, I went for a run along the magnificent, wide beach, and soaked in the sight of the restless blue waters. About fifteen minutes into the run, I found myself turning away from the ocean and toward the dunes, bounding up a flight of wooden steps, and bouncing over a twenty-foot-long boardwalk that emptied into a neighborhood that I estimated was about where Sea Forest would be located. As a matter of journalistic diligence, I needed to inspect Anderson’s place of residence, whether or not I was going to succeed in speaking with him. I continued on for a block, and sure enough, up ahead was a white street sign that read “Catalina Court,” the very street where Anderson had been hiding out all these years. I hung a left, ran to the dead end, looked at the Andersons’ house, and continued back the way I had come. It was white, one story, with the same dark shutters as all the neighbors. Just as it had appeared on the Indian River County property appraiser’s website. The garage door was down; there was no sign of activity on the premises. I jogged down an adjacent street for a few minutes, then decided to take one more peek at the Andersons’ before returning to the beach and heading for my hotel room. When I got halfway back down Catalina Court I noticed the garage door was up. The 1995 gray Buick sedan and the white 1994 Geo were inside. As I approached, I saw Anderson, walking slowly, carrying a round glass table top, which he was about to place into the trunk of the sedan. Through the garage, I could see Mrs. Anderson inside the house. She looked out at me. The sight of a jogger had caught her attention.
I could have stopped right there in my sweat-soaked white T-shirt and dark nylon shorts, walked up to the former CEO of Union Carbide, looked at him through my vintage blue-blocker Vuarnets, and clobbered him with a series of questions, starting with: “Sir, did you receive my letter?” I briefly weighed that option, then decided to hold out for a less bizarre, more professional encounter. And so I retreated from Sea Forest, without breaking stride.
I returned to Miami Beach, and contemplated one more shot. I thought about writing another letter, but my editors didn’t have that kind of patience. They wanted a showdown. They wanted a knock on Anderson’s door. And they wanted me to do it. So, two weeks later, I returned to Sea Forest.
I pulled into the Village Shops parking lot at about 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. It was raining hard. But after about ten minutes, the deluge stopped, and the sun came out. I put on a nice white button-down shirt, tucked it into my light khakis, and hoofed down Beachcomber Lane on foot, armed with pen, notepad, and tape recorder. I clambered up the wooden stairs and trekked across the boardwalk that led to the clean streets of Sea Forest.
Nobody was out. I strolled up the Andersons’ driveway, then over a lovely yellow stone tile walkway, the garage on my left, the front room of the house on my right. I rapped three times on the nicely weathered wooden door, golden brown with a thin varnish. After about ten seconds, I rang the doorbell, in case they hadn’t heard the knock. As I rehearsed my lines—“Does it haunt you?” “What would you say to the son or daughter of someone poisoned to death by methyl isocyanate?” “What have you been doing for the past twenty years, besides playing golf?” “Why won’t you talk about it!”—I noticed a puffy-cheeked cherub, made of ceramic, looking down from the wall on the side of the front step.
Then I heard footsteps, and the door swung open. Anderson, wearing a navy blue polo shirt and khaki pants, was looking straight at me. He was tall, and more wiry than I had expected. He looked quite fit for an octogenarian, though the pale, battered skin around his blue eyes betrayed his age. He was waiting for me to speak.
I was standing about four steps away from him, so as not to come off as threatening. After all, I was on his property. (Thanks to a public records search, I had the comfort of knowing he did not have a concealed weapons permit, and thus probably wouldn’t be springing a pistol on me.)
“I’m very sorry for the imposition,” I began.
“I can’t hear you,” he replied, and I realized he was somewhat hard of hearing. I took a step forward, and repeated myself, offering my right hand for him to shake. But his right arm remained motionless by his side. I had just glanced at the dark brown melanin spots on his hand, when his head bridled back.
“How did you get in here?” he shouted, his blue eyes glaring at me. I told him I had walked in from the beach.
“I don’t want to see you!” he snarled, and hurled the door shut.
I happen to remember the day the news of the explosion broke. But there are many young adults and children in the United States who know nothing about the Bhopal disaster, some of whom were not even born yet. Shouldn’t they hear Warren Martin Anderson speak about the importance of corporate responsibility? Shouldn’t children and adults in India hear from him, as well? Because in many of their eyes, Warren Anderson is corporate America. It was a long time ago, as Lillian Anderson says. Not long ago enough, however, for people in Bhopal. Maybe deep down he does feel intense shame. But his silence is a very loud symbol of moral failure, whose first consequence was the industrial accident site that remains poisonous two decades after Union Carbide’s deadly Bhopal disaster. There’s another consequence, though. Anderson’s silence sets a terrible example for the future stewards of corporate America. I can’t honestly say I blame Anderson for fleeing India back in 1984, rather than face the prospect of doing time in an Indian prison. And I’m not going to begrudge him his privacy in a comfortable house a short walk from a beautiful beach on the Atlantic Ocean. But I do condemn his silence. For that, too, he ought to be ashamed.
Kirk Nielsen is a journalist and writer based in Miami Beach.