Miners’ Families Given False Hope Before Told of Tragedy
Twelve of the thirteen Tallmansville, West Virginia miners have been found dead, with the other in critical condition. More tragically, their family members were erroneously told that they had all been found alive but the mining company decided to let them celebrate for nearly three hours before correcting the error.
Grief and anger replaced jubilation early Wednesday as mine officials announced that, despite earlier reports, only one of 13 trapped miners had survived a West Virginia mining accident. Late Tuesday, word spread among family members that 12 miners had been found alive at the Sago Mine. Celebrations erupted as church bells rang out.
Hours later, however, some miners’ loved ones — some angry, others silently dejected — began leaving the community church that had been their sanctuary since the ordeal began Monday morning. What they had to say was unbelievable in light of the earlier news of a “miracle” in the mine.
[Ben] Hatfield [the CEO of International Coal Group, which owns the Sago Mine] said he knew within 20 minutes that an error had been made and that not all 12 were alive, but said he did not inform jubilant family members. “We couldn’t correct the information without knowing more about it,” he told reporters. “Let’s put this in perspective — who do we tell not to celebrate? All I knew is, there weren’t 12 people that were alive. It was somewhere between 12 and zero.”
Hatfield said he understood family members’ anger. “I’m not surprised or upset with them. They certainly have some basis for their frustration, having been put through this emotional roller-coaster. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Some basis? Frustration? This is simply inexcusable. That the “miscommunication” happened is unfortunate but understandable. But once the company understood that a false report had gone out, they should have corrected it immediately with whatever information they had available.
Update: The AP does a pretty good job of summing up the events so far.
Most of the 13 coal miners trapped in an explosion survived the blast itself, retreated deeper into the mine and hung up a curtain-like barrier to keep out toxic gases while they waited to be rescued, officials said Wednesday. All but one were found dead after more than a day and a half.
The miners’ families learned of the 12 deaths after a harrowing night in which they were mistakenly told at first that 12 of the men were alive. It took three hours before the families were told the truth, and their joy turned instantly to fury.
The sole survivor, Randal McCloy, was in critical condition with a collapsed lung and dehydration but no sign of brain damage or carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped for more than 42 hours, a doctor said. At 27, McCloy was one of the youngest in the group.
Hatfield blamed the wrong information on a “miscommunication.” The news spread after people overheard cell phone calls, he said. In reality, rescuers had only confirmed finding 12 miners and were checking their vital signs. At least two family members in the church said they received cell phone calls from a mine foreman. “That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center,” he said.
Hatfield said it became clear within 20 minutes that the news was terribly wrong. But he said families were not told of the mistake until three hours later because officials wanted to have all the information right first. “Let’s put this in perspective. Who do I tell not to celebrate? I didn’t know if there were 12 or one” alive, the executive said.
When the bad news was delivered to the families, “there was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door,” said Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms, one of the dead. Chaos broke out in the church and a fight started. About a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence. Witnesses said one man had to be wrestled to the ground when he lunged for mining officials.
One thing is certain in all of this: Hatfield should be fired. He is likely not to blame for the false word of hope getting out. However, once it became clear it had, he had a duty to let the families know that the good news wasn’t true. “Who do I tell not to celebrate?” Everyone. A simple message that, “We’re still working but no one has yet been rescued” would have sufficed.
Update 2: Greg Saunders has a montage of newspaper covers showing the jubilation of the original announcement and the shock of the correction. He uses on of the former to make a point that occured to me as well:
Also, I canÃ¢€™t let the Boston HeraldÃ¢€™s awful (and in retrospect, horribly inappropriate) headline [“Miner Miracle” -JJ] go without comment. Now that we know the twelve miners were killed, does this mean AmericaÃ¢€™s prayers werenÃ¢€™t answered? Just like gambling addicts remember their big wins but not their losses, the fate of the twelve miners has transformed from a faith-inspiring act of God to another horrible tragedy in which itÃ¢€™s impolite to mention religion at all. Cute little sayings like Ã¢€œthe Lord works in mysterious waysÃ¢€ are cop-outs for the logical conclusions that many of us draw from experiences like this. If something fantastic and improbable can be used as proof that thereÃ¢€™s a benevolent god, doesnÃ¢€™t the reverse point toward the conclusion that a higher power is indifferent at best? If you believe in a god that could have saved these menÃ¢€™s lives (which I donÃ¢€™t, btw), why didnÃ¢€™t he? People are quick to throw around the word Ã¢€œmiracleÃ¢€ when something wonderful happens, so what the hell do we call this?