Hi all. I am back at my Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Here is the full account of what happened with the whole “miner’s alive” flub. I’ve made a few minor edits to my earlier draft. I’ll just try to tell you what happened from my perspective.
It was closing in on midnight Tuesday night. My photographer Todd and I had slept in our rented SUV, grabbing about three hours sleep, in case the miners were rescued or found dead overnight. I had figured they were dead ever since I heard Monday night that there was no debris boxing in the miners. I figured this would end badly. My photographer, Todd Maisel, was getting rather cranky and wanted to call it a night. I had permission to leave from my editor, but still felt uneasy about it. But I heard that the rescuers had exhausted their air supply and were pulling out for a few hours. I made arrangements with a friendly reporter to call me if anything went down, then figured to grab a few hours of shut-eye. At this point we had been working since about 7 a.m.
As we started to pull out of a neighbor’s muddy front yard turned into a media parking lot, Todd stopped me. What’s that sound, he asked. It was the tolling of church bells. We have to check this out! he says. Of course.
Getting out of the SUV, things are happening. A portly man runs by me, on his way to the CNN compound. Tears are in his eyes. They’re alive! They’re all alive! he yells at me.
Huh? I start sprinting toward the church. The state police who had kept us back earlier make no attempt to do so now. It is happy chaos at the Sago Baptist Church. Gov. Joe Manchin makes his way to his car, making no effort to stem the celebration. I try to get in a question, but he’s getting swarmed by the press. I don’t hear it, but apparently he tells a reporter from his car windows that “yes, miracles do happen.”
Anna McCloy is so joyful, so thankful the father of her two kids is alive. “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” she tells me. “They’re alive. I can’t believe it. They’re alive.” She has tears in her eyes and gives Baltimore Sun reporter a big hug. Raymond Weaver is sad about the one miner who perished, but happy about his brother Jerry and the rest of the men.
“You know,” he tells me, “none of us gave up hope. We had our down moments, but we never gave up hope.”
I quickly call my editor with the update. It is past deadline; papers are already rolling off the presses. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember telling her, “you should run with this!” And I remember the joy in my voice. She’s been watching the scene on TV and sounds equally happy as she tells me, “We’re going to!”
Todd has tears in his eyes, too. Can you believe we almost missed this, he asks. No, I tell him. People are singing hymns and praising the Lord.
This is going to be a scene I remember for the rest of my life, I think. Right up there when the reporters onboard a ferry in front of the Statute of Liberty put aside our collective cynicism to sing “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” with a teenager, holding the Olympic flame, who had lost his father in the World Trade Center a few weeks after 9/11. Why hadn’t I held onto hope, I asked myself, resolving to be less cynical in future.
I get a few more quotes. Geraldo Rivera is there, butting in on interviews. He’s working by cell phone and stands so close to his subjects it looks almost like a lover’s embrace. Amid the celebration, I find my friend Alexa Fleming with People magazine. We’re both thinking the same thing: we need to find Nick and Amber Helms, the children of Terry Helms, the only miner to die. They seemed like the most decent, wholesome kids you can possibly imagine … amid all the celebration, we didn’t want their grief to go unrecorded. We don’t find them, but I do track down Michelle Mauser, Terry’s niece.
Eventually the state police shoo us back down the hill. Todd drives off to send his photos at a WiFi hot spot downtown. An ambulance drives off with the first survivor. I join other reporters huddled around a fire for warmth. (THANK GOD for the Red Cross).
Geraldo is there, as is Chris Cuomo, co-anchor of ABC’s Primetime Live. Chris, who hasn’t yet had to file a report, is uneasy about how this is being reported. How would you do it, I ask. He says he’d be clear this is information from the families, that authorities hadn’t confirmed it. I don’t have any such qualms. And how could you run video of that celebration without leaving a clear impression in people’s minds, that these miners were all alive?
(As a side note: I have an anti-authoritarian streak a mile long. I don’t believe in waiting until “the authorities,” give my stories some magic stamp of approval by saying “this story has been Officially Confirmed.” That just makes the media another government cog. As we saw during Katrina, the authorities can be just as wrong as anyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and often government officials can be more neutral and knowledgeable than others. But they’re all only human, with their own motives, just like everyone else).
On the road, we can see a queue ambulances waiting to transport the other survivors. (“When I went through the gates [of the mine] they told me of 12 survivors,” the local fire chief, Joe Tallman, told me hours later. “I’m running around trying to get 12 ambulances lined up.”) The cops have completely blocked off the local road so the ambulances will have a clear shot. We’re blocked in, and Todd is blocked out.
I lean into the fire we’re huddled around and make a little joke. “Y’know … if we don’t make it out of here alive,” I say solemnly, “I just want to say … I love you guys!” My last four words are shrill, and I hug the reporter sitting next to me. It did seem a little like something out of a horror movie, the out-of-towners trapped and sitting around a fire in rural West Virginia. But some people think I’m actually mocking Geraldo Rivera and his emotive interviewing techniques to his face. Geraldo comes around the fire and pretend-bonks me on the head with his microphone. “Awww, shuddup.”
Another reporter remarks to me about how annoying it is that the mining company hasn’t come down to give us an official update. But I’m more concerned with catching something from the miners as they came out. Caught up in the initial celebration, some of us even believed the families when they said the miners would stop by the church before being brought to the hospital. But we quickly realize that’d be silly, these men must be in rough shape and are heading straight to the hospital.
Todd calls. He had trailed the ambulance to the hospital and almost made a shot of the miner being carted out, only to be swarmed by police at the last minute. But doctors give an update: the man is in critical condition. Yikes, this might not be as happy and ending as it seemed an hour ago.
And where are the other miners, we wonder? It must be 2 a.m. or so by now, about two hours since the families first got their update. They are probably being treated and triaged at the scene, we figure.
As it gets later and later, we’re realizing something is wrong. But I don’t think any of us ever thought the other 11 miners were dead. I certainly didn’t. (Alexa tells me later that “not for a minute” did she think the miners might be dead. “Not even for a minute. How could you make a mistake like that [telling the families their loved ones were alive]? How could that happen?”)
I’m snooping around when I get a phone call from Bob Shields on the News Desk around 2:47 a.m. (I never deal with the News Desk, they handle layout and story placement, but usually just interact with my editors. All the editors have gone home by now, though). He tells me that CNN is saying that the other 11 miners are dead. I can’t believe it. I feel totally blindsided. I tell Shields I’ll call him back.
Some families are trudging down the hill from the church, their heads low. The first won’t talk to me. I fall in step with an elderly couple and ask them what they know.
“They told us they are all alive,” she tells me, “and then they’re all dead.” I ask a few more questions, but they don’t reply. Just too upset. I wouldn’t be badgering anyone in this much grief normally, but jeez, I need to know this right now. The man is kicking up mud at the camera crews filming them. I fall a step back and pull out my cell phone. CNN’s Randi Kaye steps in front of me and asks a few more questions, which they also ignore. (For whatever reason, this footage — the sad family trudging down the hill, trailed by a reporter with a receding hairline in a green poncho (i.e., me) — seems to have become CNN’s signature video for this story, I’ve seen myself on TV dozens of times)
I call Shields again with the update. They’re going to stop the presses and replate. Relatives, sad beyond belief, are telling me this is the worst thing they’ve ever witnessed. “This was worse than you could ever imagine,” says Nick Helms, the 25-year-old son of dead miner Terry Helms.
I spot ABC’s Chris Cuomo amid all the chaos. Well, you were right, I tell him. Yeah, he replies. But I really wish I hadn’t been.
At a hastily convened press conference, reporters are grilling Gov. Manchin. I’m ducking out perodically to feed quotes to Veronika Belenkaya, a former intern who was hired some months ago to work the overnight shift. I make each phone call short short short, because it sounds like she’s typing like a madwoman. I wasn’t there, but I assume that she, Shields and a few others just worked their asses off in a short period of time to totally redo the paper.
After the presser, I headed back to the church. There was just media left. Not much more to do. I look at my watch. 6 a.m. Todd and I still have a 40-minute drive to our motel/hotel in Clarksburg — what happens when you don’t book a place immediately and news crews from around the country are descending on a small town. But somehow I manage to keep my eyes open long enough to find our hotel with out an accident. My dress shoes are caked with mud. My jeans are specked with mud up to the knees. After wearing them for two days straight, I nearly have to peel them off. It’s 7 a.m. by the time I hit the sack.
My editor calls me less than three hours later.
Driving around the West Virginia later that day, Todd and I hear Rush Limbaugh bashing the press for getting the story wrong. Later, I hear that Joe Strupp and Greg Mitchell have written a critical story for Editor & Publisher. I decide I’m going to write about it on my blog. In a few spare moments, I interview couple of the other reporters who were there to get their perspective.
“Obviously, I reported the quote ‘fact’ that the miners were alive,” Jon Hurdle of Reuters tells me. “I attributed that to one of the family members, and I imagine that person was named in the story, I’m sure there were. As the evening wore on, my editor was on the phone saying that this wasn’t confirmed, we really need that. And of course that was never forthcoming.”
Was this a black eye for the media? “Oh no, not at all,” Hurdle says. “We had — perhaps not every reason — but there was no reason to doubt at that moment that the families had the correct information. In hindsight, saying ‘well hold off on this, that 200 people are yelling and screaming and saying praise the Lord in the middle of the night, and treat it as all unconfirmed and hold it until we get it from an official source’ … under the circumstances, I think that the media could be forgiven for being fairly confident that these people had the right information.”
“Ideally, what people should have done is written a lede that says family members say mine officials have told them this, but there’s no confirmation and we’re waiting for it,” NPR labor reporter Frank Langfitt tells me. But it’s not easy to get all that into a lede or a headline, he adds.
“Reporter were tired, and print reporters, who were burned the worst, were up against very tight deadlines and had to write on very short notice,” says Langfitt, who worked at the Baltimore Sun for a dozen years. “They were under tremendous pressure. It’s too simple to say this was a case of the media being sloppy or loose. Reporters should have hedged their ledes, but I’m a radio reporter, I did not report on this ’til 5 a.m., I feel lucky.
“I hope I would have hedged it,” if he had to report on this sooner, Langfitt tells me. “I hope I would have.”
People magazine was only a hours from printing a story saying 12 of the miners had survived, Alexa tells me. “It had to be completely done over, obviously.”
I ask her if this is a black eye for the press. “I don’t,” she replies. “Maybe I should, but I don’t. In the circumstances … it was hysteria. People were going nuts. It was like a riot almost, without the violence. Obviously, we were caught up in it. Did we ever get offered the governor coming out and making a statement? Nobody offered that.”
Five days later, I sit here typing this and think about lessons learned. Lesson one: WTF was I thinking, about to leave the scene like that at midnight? C’mon Rose. Lesson two: when covering huge breaking news stories in small towns, book your hotel earlier rather than later. Duh.
But as getting the dead/alive story wrong? Hmm. I’ll certainly be a bit more careful the next time I cover trapped miners and sumbariners. But beyond that, I’m not sure what kind of lesson there is for me here. Perhaps I should simply have been more skeptical. It would simply have been absolutely incredible for 11 men to have survived in that mine for 41 hours, given the lethal levels of carbon monoxide present.
Looking back, I think we all did get caught up in the euphoria of the celebration, as Alexa told me. Perhaps we just put aside our natural skepticism for a bit.
But put aside journalism for a second … what kind of human beings would we be if we didn’t get overjoyed about the rescue of a dozen miners?