Wednesday, January 04, 2006

No Excuse for WV Families' Agony

Bad news this morning. I went to bed last night finally at 1 a.m. I had first doubted the word that 12 of 13 missing miners were safe, but not for long. When an hour passed and no correction, I was puzzled about the lack of official confirmation, but no longer doubting. If the rumor was not true, or even unconfirmed, some official who knew would surely have said so.

Wrong.

My heart just breaks when I think of the lost miners' families, who apparently were left for three long hours in the false security that their loved ones were alive andsoon to join them -- only to have that hope dashed early this morning when they learned that only one miner survived.

These families are angry and have a right to be angry.

And the federal government bears some of the blame.

Officials of the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration were in the emergency command center at the mine, as they always are in mine emergencies of this kind. They were there because MSHA has to approve every single action taken in an emergency with miners missing. They must have known the truth. And they should have acted to stop the rumor and bring the truth to the families.

It was a very different story at another tragic mine explosion back in December 1992. Families of eight missing miners huddled in tents and school buses on a snowy hillside near Norton, Va., for almost a week before rescue teams could overcome the obstacles and find their loved ones, only to end their hope.

But in that case, at least there was full and honest sharing of information.

I was one of the MSHA people on site that bitter week. As an agency spokeserson, I shuttled back and forth between the families, the media and the officials in the command center, keeping abreast of facts, rumors and feelings.

Through the snow and darkness and bitter winds, every two to three hours during that ordeal, knowledgable people with MSHA, the state mine agency and -- when possible --the company would make their way down the dirt road from the portal of the Southmountain mine to the waiting families and make sure they knew the truth.

Most of the time, we brought safety specialists to these briefings -- specialists who were part of the rescue effort and could explain the details. When we had updated the families and answered all their questions to the best of our knowledge, we would go outside and brief the news media, also assembled there. We gave the media the same information we had told the family members.

We knew that when accurate information is lacking, rumors will run wild. So rumor control was part of what we had to do.

We also knew that communicating critical news by walkie-talkies or cell phones can lead to unintended interceptions and mistakes. The rescuers in the Virginia emergency understood this and discussed new findings only by land-line or in person until the families knew. In this way, we made sure that the miners' families always got announcements first -- and accurately.

At that time MSHA's own emergency response manual and media guidelines told agency managers: in an emergency, your responsibilities include waiting families, and the media that will bring the news to the wider commmunity.

Not that MSHA usurped the mining company's role. If the company stepped up and took the lead responsibly with families and media, MSHA would not intefere, but would supply information on its own part in the rescue effort.

But if a company could not or would not take the informative role, it was MSHA's job to step in.

In the 1992 explosion, a small mining company found itself overwhelmed and could not organize briefings. So MSHA did.

And in Upshur County, as soon as it was known that the miners' families were reacting to a false rumor, someone should have stepped in at once to give them the truth. If no one else was willing, MSHA should have done it.

Public information on mine safety is part of the the federal mine agency's job -- a part it has less and less enthusiastically embraced under the Bush administration.

For instance, MSHA has cut back on what it gives out under the Freedom of Information Act, dumbed-down news releases, and pushed career professionals out of public roles.

At the time of the 2002 Quecreek mine rescue, MSHA's tried and true system for handling information in mine emergencies was still largely in place. While we were only one of many responding agencies, we still made sure that throughout, accurate news went first to families, then the media.

After that, though, the assault on public information accelerated.

MSHA still has a few public information professionals with experience in mine emergencies. But they were left on the sidelines this time.

I have heard that the Labor Department sent a political press aide with no mine emergency experience to the site. If that is what happened, it would typify a politically-obsessed administration that makes a habit of spurning professional expertise.

But it is no excuse for the cruelty caused by the government's failure to take responsibility and tell those waiting families the truth.

It also has been MSHA's practice in recent years to take a lower profile in emergencies and other bad news, while pushing news of success. If people aren't even aware you have responsibilities, they don't ask awkward questions when things go wrong.

I hope somebody will ask some questions this time.

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