Friday, January 06, 2006

Information Fiasco Only Gets More Heartbreaking

The Charleston Daily Mail reports:

Dennis O'Dell, safety chief of the United Mine Workers of America, said word quickly spread among work crews and everyone else on the scene that the men were dead. He said some people knew the truth as soon as 15 minutes after others at the church began celebrating the miners' survival....

O'Dell said he assumed the information would be passed on to the families shortly after midnight.

He said he first found out false rumors were still circulating about 1 a.m. when he called his wife in Virginia to tell her the miners were dead.
She told him national news sources still were reporting all of them were alive.

O'Dell said he immediately contacted on-site officials with both the state of West Virginia and with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to see who should correct the mistake.

He again was told the matter was being left up to the coal company.


O'Dell called the experience "sickening." Indeed.

The government is reponsible to the people. Directly to the people. Not just to coal companies and other employers.

If this is what happened, we are talking about a cop-out, moral cowardice, and a repudiation of the whole principle of public service.

Miners and their families are more than just employees of a particular company. They are fellow Americans and fellow human beings. They work hard. They pay their taxes. The government is supposed to be of, by and for them and all of us. When the chips are down, government is supposed to be their helper and advocate.

O'Dell -- an outsider at a mine that was non-union -- said he struggled with whether to intervene personally. Who was I to the family members? They've been communicating with the company all night, and if I went down there as someone they'd never seen before and told them this, what would they think? What would they do?

I contemplate this scenario, and another recent fiasco comes to mind -- Hurricane Katrina. It brings back the confident statments we heard that rescue efforts were going well, even as cameras brought us contrary evidence.

And I want readers to know: this is not the way things used to be at MSHA's public information office. This is a new policy, a new way of doing things. And MSHA is still full of excellent professionals, inspectors, investigators, information people...Most MSHA people have worked in mines, have families in the mines, and must be broken-hearted both over the tragedy and what happened to the families. The decision to handle things this way, in my view, can only have come from the top.

By the way, I first saw the Daily Mail story on Jordan Barab's very thorough job safety and health blog, Confined Space. Worth a visit.

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