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 can’t let the Boston Herald’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 America’s prayers weren’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 it’s impolite to mention religion at all. Cute little sayings like “the Lord works in mysterious ways” 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 there’s a benevolent god, doesn’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 men’s lives (which I don’t, btw), why didn’t he? People are quick to throw around the word “miracle” when something wonderful happens, so what the hell do we call this?

Good questions.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. nifoask says:

    This almost as shameless as the Pentagon’s lies about and exploitation of Pat Tillman.

  2. My question is when did the mining company know they were dead? That’s when they should have told the families, and it may not have been confirmed until 3 hours after the report about the miners being alived “leaked”. I find that hard to believe, though.

  3. James Joyner says:

    BM: I’d argue that, the moment they found out that the families had been erroneously told that the miners were alive, they should have let them know otherwise. I’m not expecting the company to have correctly forecast the future, merely to let them know that they didn’t know.

  4. bryan says:

    This almost as shameless as the Pentagon’s lies about and exploitation of Pat Tillman.

    That comment is the most pathetic thing I’ve read in 3 years in the blogosphere.

  5. Herb says:

    Bryan:

    I totally agree with you. That partisan comment was uncalled for and shameful. To associate this tragedy with anything political is the lowest of the low in comments I have ever read.

  6. Steven Plunk says:

    You can certainly tell the serious thinkers from the children.

    I hold the media culpable in this debacle. Rather than seek the facts the various “journalists” joined in the celebration. A happy ending was needed for Geraldo, Rita, Anderson, and even Cooper. When even a whiff of a good story came around they all jumped on it without doing their job. Why didn’t they ask the families about the source of information? Why didn’t they explain the need for verification?

    The Mining company could have done a better job but it was busy trying to get the job done of rescue or recovery. Whoever started the rumor is more to blame than the mining company for not stopping it.

  7. Another thing I read is that people in rural areas tend to distrust the media. They made the point that they never let any media in the church, nor at the rescue site. How on earth was the media supposed to know anything different than the miners had been rescued when the only sources they had were the ringing church bells and passers-by?

    I do think they should have worded things more carefully until they had the final word, though, but the Governor of the state had made a statement. Usually, that’s among the best info you can get in these situations.

  8. the forester says:

    I don’t blame Hatfield — he made a responsible decision. He saw the damage that misinformation had caused, and decided he would not let further misinformation cause further damage until he had something in hand that was validated. Three hours was unfortunate, but the roller coaster ride would have been far bumpier, with many more ups and downs, if the families had been dragged along on every scrap of (mis)information that came through.

    What disgusts me in the whole situation is how the media is trying to stoke the flames of controversy. In case you’re interested, I blogged about it here. Count ’em up: in one CNN article, 27 paragraphs for the miscommunication, versus only 8 for the rescue efforts plus deaths plus sole survivor’s status.