Holmes Report Blog

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Anatomy of a PR Nightmare: The New York Times has what appears to be a definitive timeline that explains the disastrous miscommunication about the West Virginia mine disaster.

At 11:45 p.m. last night, [International Coal Group CEO Bennett Hatfield] said, the mine rescue center received a report that 12 miners were alive. At 12:18 a.m., the rescue center received a report that the rescue workers and the "survivors" were leaving the area where they had been found.
"Company officials at the mine did not release any statements at this time," Mr. Hatfield said. "However, we were aware that numerous cell phone calls from a number of mine rescue workers and jubilant employees were made to family members and others upon receipt of this uplifting report."
At 12:30 a.m., when the rescue teams were at a place where they could breathe fresh air, "the mine command center was informed that there appeared to be only one survivor and that the others showed no vital signs... The immediate reaction in the command center was that this report of only one survivor may be erroneous," he said....
He said that at 1:38 a.m. four additional rescue teams were dispatched along with emergency medical technicians to attend to the other miners. "Company and state officials did not believe it was prudent to issue a statement to family or the media without concrete information as to the actual status of the miners," he said.
At approximately 2 a.m., Mr. Hatfield said, "within minutes of learning that the initial reports were incorrect, state police officers were notified and asked to notify clergy that the initial reports may have been too optimistic."
He said that only some of the families were reached by those clergy.
The mine rescue teams were debriefed, "and company, state and federal officials became more convinced that the others were deceased."
By 2:30 a.m., he said, the company decided to announce the "devastating news," and "in keeping with our commitment, we went first to the church to tell the families, and then from there to the media center."
"We made what we believed to be the best decisions based on the information available while working under extreme stress and physical exhaustion," he said.
"We sincerely regret the manner in which the events unfolded early this morning."

I'm not sure this entirely absolves the company of blame, but it does put a human face on the decision-making process.

There are still some tough questions to be answered, many of which are raised by Kevin Drum in an item that examines how mine safety regulations have been relaxed under the current administration, and others of which can be found in the Charlie Cray piece at the Huffington Post, referenced below.

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