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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Shocking Reversal: Only One Miner Survives

Writing this as it happens: after several hours of 'miracles happen' pronouncements to family members starting approximately 11:50 PM EST, the media and the public that 12 of 13 West Virginia miners survived -- and that they would be soon be reuniting with family members at the Baptist church once released by the hospital. Church bells rang, the governor gave the thumbs up signal and people were celebrating (mostly) with euphoria, relief, joy and gratitude.

Suddenly we are just now hearing that there had been a terrible mistake and in fact ONLY ONE miner survived (and is hanging on by a thread at the hospital).

A woman and her two children appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper shortly before 3:00 AM EST saying that all hell had broken out in the Baptist church when the mining company spokesperson stated that there had been 'miscommunications' and that in fact only one person had survived.

I watched the disbelieving Anderson Cooper conduct an intelligent, sensitive interview with the woman and her children before switching over to MSNBC which was starting to report the same news, although without interviews at the time. I'm keeping it on CNN.





The press conference is occurring just after 3:00 AM -- the statement read by the mining company spokesperson was obviously prepared (and practiced) well ahead of time. During the Q&A he is stating that cell phone conversations and speaker phone communications from rescue personnel were interpreted to be that there were 12 individuals, that vital signs were being checked -- somehow the rescue command center believed there were 12 survivors -- the ensuing chaos resulted in 'miscommunications' spreading like wildfire.


The spokesperson acknowledged that he and company reps knew within 20 minutes that this 'miscommunication' was not correct -- although he stated that he did not know the exact numbers of survivors, only that it was between zero and twelve. When asked why they waited 3 hours to correct the misconceptions, he said they did not want to upset family members even more by telling them incomplete information. There was no explanation about why they couldn't put out a statement immediately that early reports were incorrect and incomplete and for family members to not believe what they had been told.

While seeming to be genuinely remorseful, he simultaneously conveys a poor sense of propriety (or what is referred to as Emotional Intelligence and empathy) as he also speaks about the 'benefits that coal miners enjoy' and the 'improvements' the company has made, instead of keeping the tone and content focused on the grief and loss of the families and community -- a feeble attempt and contemptible, inappropriate attitude of 'seeing the silver lining, glass-half-full', as well as an attempt to communicate the devastation. He has an unenviable position.

Even now after 3:15 the NYTimes.com, WashingtonPost.com and CNN.com still show "We Got 12 Alive" or similar headlines, although a Breaking News banner above is stating despite earlier reports 12 are dead. (additional captured images to be posted).

At just after 3:30 the governor is now speaking; he also believed the miners were alive. He also knew much sooner that early reports were incorrect or at the very least muddled. He said he didn't know who told the families that there were 12 survivors. CNN is now showing USA Today print version (incorrect, reporting 12 survivors) story and saying it states that the governor announced to the gathered families that there were 12 survivors.

Stunning, shocking, deeply heartbreaking.

Families and community members are extremely upset, angry, bitter, devastated. Understandably so. They are angry that their hopes and expectations were raised and then so cruelly dashed, with such deliberate, intentional delay (and cowardice). They feel lied to, betrayed, desperate for truth and answers . They deserve it. What a nightmare, literally and figuratively. A heartwrenching debacle at the very least. Public relations seminars, journalism classes, corporate and organizational communications professionals will be discussing and analyzing this for years to come.

The NYT is reporting: "A relative at the church said a mine foreman called relatives there, saying the miners had been found." Some are speculating that from there the 'miscommunication' spread rapidly with news the families wanted to hear.

A big question remains: why did it take almost three hours for the mining company (or the governor) to CORRECT the 'miscommunication'?

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