Kiichiro Sato  /  AP
Unidentified family members leave Sago Baptist Church early Wednesday in Tallmansville, W. Va. after learning that 11 of the 12 coal miners who were initially thought to have survived an explosion in a coal mine have died. 
NBC News
By Ron Allen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/4/2006 6:04:16 PM ET 2006-01-04T23:04:16

TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. — NBC News’ Ron Allen spent the night at the Sago Baptist Church in Tallmansville, W. Va., with family members of the miners as they went through hours of dread, then jubilation and, finally, utter devastation.

Allen describes the scene and how the media tried to cope with covering the awful miscommunication that transpired when 11 of the 12 miners that were thought to have survived the mine blast were found to be dead.

Can you describe the emotional roller-coaster for family members?
It was one of the most bizarre and intense emotional experiences I’ve seen, and I’ve covered disasters all over the world and all over the country; sadly, more than my fair share.

I’m still struggling to find the words to describe what happened. The scene up in the mountains was rainy, foggy, misty, and dank and it all happened on a narrow mountain road that was just packed with traffic in both directions. There were muggy, soggy fields on either side of the road and the community and media people were just slogging through all of it.

It was just an awful, wretched setting for such a horrible story and a horrible set of circumstances for these people and this town. 

These people were euphoric when they suddenly thought all the missing miners had been saved. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind — they had been praying all day, they had been worshipping together, they had been bonding together and now, some 40 hours into this ordeal, these hundreds of people were just convinced and euphoric that a miracle had happened.

That was the only explanation for it — a miracle. All day they had been hearing about no communication, poisonous, deadly air in the mine shaft, but all that seemed unimportant or irrelevant now because the men in the mine had been saved, or so they had been told.

Over the next few hours the mood just seemed to change.

The governor said that after he heard the news, he was in the church, but he said he started having doubts about 20 to 30 minutes later.

Slowly and gradually, I think many people here started having their doubts as well because there was no moment when an official came forward to share this great news with the media or the assembled families.

And sure enough, there was disaster — again. Someone here described it as just a cruel, cruel twist of circumstance here.

The families started coming out of the church in small in small groups. Some were just obviously and visibly crying and distressed, hugging each other for support. Some very angry at us (members of the media) standing there.

Word began to trickle out that the company officials had just told them that 11 miners did not make it.

Why? How? The relatives were angry, they felt betrayed, many said that they had been lied to by this company. They felt that the company had built up these expectations, given them this miracle, and then snatched it away from them. The anger was palpable, the tension was palpable

It was just unbelievable how they got it so wrong.

The only explanation that was offered to the families was: “miscommunication.” “Miscommunication?” they all said. What does that mean? “Miscommunication?”

They all filed out and vented their rage. It was just an unbelievable turn of events.

Has the sorrow of the community now turned to anger?
There is anger, grief and resignation. There is deep pain and loss because husbands, fathers, brothers, nephews, and grandfathers are no longer here.

That sense of loss, which was intense already, was just made that much worse by this bizarre set of circumstances that took place during a three to four hour period during the night. Listening to these people out there was just overwhelming. I have never experienced anything quite like this.

How difficult was it to cover this story?
I think among many of us in the media, among our colleagues, we started questioning this survival story about an hour later because no one came forward to share the good news. The governor, who had been briefing us regularly, had no official statement. No state officials, no one came forward to share this wonderful news or to explain how suddenly, after not hearing anything from the miners, they were suddenly safe.

After all of these dire assessments of the deadly air quality levels in the mine, that suddenly they were safe, it just didn’t seem to make sense, there was no explanation.

You don’t want to be cynical, you realize that you don’t know everything that is going on there, but eventually, we were all saying something is wrong here.

We all reported this news as well. I reported this news on the air, and to some extent, you just feel terrible. Because some people, when they were arriving said, “We heard this on the radio, We heard this on the TV. They said that they were safe. They lied to us, too.”

And of course, we’re out here trying to do the best that we can and just passing along what we were told. There seemed to be simply no doubt about it when it happened, how quickly the news spread and how sure the families were as they came out of the church celebrating.

Is the miracle of the one survivor any solace for the community there?
I have not spoken to that man’s family. I would imagine that they would have very deep, mixed emotions.

This is a very small, close-knit community. The miners come from some distances, but we were all struck and touched by how closely everyone pulled together.

Ron Allen is an NBC News Correspondent on assignment in Tallmansville, West Virginia.  


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