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'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Jan. 4th

Read the transcript to the Wednesday show

Guest: Mark Radomsky; Ron Allen; Robert Hager

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The miracle that wasn‘t, 12 of the 13 trapped West Virginia miners were dead by the time rescuers reached them 24 hours ago.  Yet that is not what families were first told, and not what families first told reporters, and not what officials first told reporters.

Tonight, what went wrong in the mine during the explosion, in the mine during the long-delayed rescue effort?  What went wrong in the news delivered to the families, in the news delivered to you?

And the lone miracle of the experience, Randall McCloy, 27 years old, unconscious, but moaning and alive.

All that and more, now on a special edition of COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

The late editions of last night‘s newscasts, and the early editions of today‘s newspapers, said it all, headlines in “The New York Times,” “The Washington Post,” and others heralding the news that 12 of 13 West Virginia coal miners had been found alive.  Those initial reports, of course, proving to be as inaccurate as they were cruel.

Our fifth story on this COUNTDOWN, the families of those miners learning, after hours of seeming relief and jubilation, that only one of them had survived.  The hours since, full of shock and grief and outrage.

We‘ll have more on the media‘s role in all this, and that of the government, and that of the coal operators, who, at least word, were blaming the actual rescue team in part for the heartbreaking, shocking disconnect.

But we begin our special coverage tonight with the latest news in Tallmansville, West Virginia, where our correspondent Tom Costello is standing by.

Tom, good evening.

TOM COSTELLO, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening to you.

As you well know, this is a town that has been home to generations of miners, and tonight they are just in anguish, they are in mourning, they are angry, they are sad, they are also happy that one did come out alive, and they have just been put through the emotional roller-coaster, this twister, for the last 24 hours.

You know, Keith, these are really salt-of-the-earth people here that do this work.  It is backbreaking work, and it is so important to the economy of this country.  And they often feel, and rightly so, that they are forgotten, that they work down deep in these mines, and they are, quite simply, out of sight and out of mind.  And they are, often.

Tonight, however, the nation is absolutely watching what has happened to these families, and they are so upset by it, and these people here, in many ways, feel betrayed by the town, by the company, I should say, that has become so important to this town.

OLBERMANN:  What did they hear, Tom, from the mine officials this afternoon?  How did the members of the community receive what they were told today in the wake not only of the tragedy itself, but the false hope that surrounded it?

COSTELLO:  Well, the company today came out and gave a very detailed explanation, in my view, to their credit.  They gave a very detailed explanation of what happened and what went wrong last night.

Essentially, it is this.  At 11:45 last night, the rescue teams down in the mine, wearing these masks—if you‘ve ever heard a firefighter trying to breathe through and talk on a radio through a mask, you know how difficult it is to understand him.  Well, that‘s what was happening.

The rescuers down in the mine had masks on.  They radioed out.  Somehow, by the time that message got relayed up all the way up to the command center, the message was -- (audio interrupt) --in any event, they didn‘t know the truth until about 45 minutes later.

And then today, the company executives said, We were so jubilant, we were so excited, we all believed that it was true, that we were then hesitant to believe the bad news.  And so they delayed, and they waited, and they asked and double-checked and check and checked again.

And by the time they had their facts absolutely confirmed, two and a half, three hours had passed, and these people have been literally dancing in the streets here, hoping and praying and thankful for a miracle, only to be let down like this.

OLBERMANN:  The investigation, obviously, will be going on for quite a while, but we‘re getting the start, the dribs and drabs of it here.  Are we getting any sense yet about how long those 12 miners had survived after the initial explosion, or what their (INAUDIBLE), their final moments might have been like?

COSTELLO:  Well, that‘s what is just agonizing to think about, because we know that they had this oxygen mechanism here, this personal oxygen container, that gave them about an hour‘s worth of air.  And we know that they got to that oxygen mask.  They had donned that oxygen mask, each one of them, and they had moved to the very far corner of the mine.

And in fact, they had constructed a makeshift barrier.  They had pulled down plastic sheeting around them to keep good oxygen in and keep the bad carbon monoxide out.  But we don‘t know how long they were alive in there.  Except this 27-year-old survivor, his name is Randall McCloy, he was clinging to life when they pulled him out.

So if they had gotten there 12 hours earlier, might other miners have been found alive?  Keep in mind, the other miners were in their 50s, for the most part.

Today I asked the CEO of the company that question, and he said, Clearly, if we had gotten there sooner, maybe more miners would have survived.  But we had to go through this very, very careful, methodical process of trying to reach the miners, because the last thing we wanted was for our rescuers to move into a pocket of carbon monoxide or methane gas and all of them die.

And that has happened in the past on mine rescues.  And they have learned their lessons, and there are very strict protocols about how to proceed on a mine rescue.

But nonetheless, that news, that all those miners, 12 of them, have been found together in a makeshift barricade behind the plastic, tells us they‘ve survived the explosion, they were holding out hope that rescuers would get to them.

OLBERMANN:  One last question, Tom.  We have all, I‘m sure, at least begun to project ourselves into situations like this or read of stories of people who are facing death alone under circumstances like this, Arctic explorers, Scott expedition to the Antarctic in 1910, things like that.  Is there any indication that they may have tried to leave messages for their families, or left some record of their lives, in the sense that they thought that they might be losing them?

COSTELLO:  Yes, and in fact, in Pennsylvania, those miners three years ago, who thought they were going to die, wrote messages.  We asked the company tonight, Did, in fact, the miners leave messages?  And the company hinted strongly that the miners may have left messages.  They may have realized their situation was dire.

But the company says it will not betray the confidence of the—of their employees, their families, and they will keep that confidential.

OLBERMANN:  Tom Costello in Tallmansville, West Virginia.  Great thanks again, sir.

COSTELLO:  You bet.

OLBERMANN:  No satisfying answers yet to the question of how this, the mine disaster itself, could have happened.  Until then, we are left with the forensics being applied to how the public and, more importantly, how the families were given what would have been the best news of their lives, if it had only been true.

Much of the American media‘s audience went through a lesser and vicarious nightmare, and before we try to analyze why, let‘s encapsulate what, those cruel early-morning hours when the initial joy turned to unspeakable grief.



TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC:  I‘m sorry, Mr. Radomsky, I have to—or I‘m going to have to cut you off right there.  We have breaking news.  We‘re going to go Rita Cosby on the ground in West Virginia.  Rita?

RITA COSBY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Tucker, we have some stunning news that we have just learned.  NBC News and the Associated Press are confirming information that the 12 miners, remember 12 were missing, as of a few moments ago, that they are alive.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Did you hear the church bells?  Did you hear the church bells?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I don‘t know, we were setting here in the vehicle, and somebody come running down through there screaming, They‘re all alive.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What did they say when they came running in the church, Brianna?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  They‘re, like, Praise the Lord, they‘re alive, they‘re alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How‘d that make you feel?




COSBY:  We‘ve got another sister-in-law of a miner on the phone right now.  Hi, Miss Weaver.  What is your reaction?  How thrilled are you?


COSBY:  How did you find out the (INAUDIBLE), the news?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Some guy come through the church screaming, It‘s a miracle, praise the Lord.

COSBY:  Mr. Weaver, who told you?  How did you get the news?  Was it - who ran in?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m not really sure who he was.  There was just so many people in the church, you really couldn‘t tell.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It just spread like wildfire.  And if you could see the anticipation on all of these people‘s faces, it is just phenomenal, as they stand here with nothing but bright smiles.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (INAUDIBLE), all we heard was, Praise the Lord, we got them out.  That‘s all we heard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And what happened when they—when someone came in and said that?  What happened inside there?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (INAUDIBLE) and everybody just started to shout. 

And pretty soon (INAUDIBLE).

COSBY:  And, you know, Ron, we‘re just getting word that one of our producers there on the ground is saying that in about 45 minutes, the lucky 12, as Tom Costello, I think, appropriately, was calling them, are going to be coming over to your direction to the church, we‘re hearing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And next to the mobile command post for the state of West Virginia, where just a moment ago the governor‘s press secretary, Tom Hunter, said that, in fact, they have not yet formally, the governor‘s office has not yet formally made a comment about whether all 12 are alive.

We are getting this, of course, from other sources, including the families, who say that they have been told that.  But...

COSBY:  What do you know about where these 12 men were found?

CHRIS HAMILTON, WEST VIRGINIA COAL ASSOCIATION:  Rita, they actually found the individual miners (INAUDIBLE) inside that—about 1,500 to 2,000 feet inside the main portal.  They were able to find a small portion of air and just barricaded themselves, found fresh air, and had some additional breathing apparatus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Rita, the first ambulance has now left the mine area, and it looked as if they were, in fact, working on a miner.  We could not ascertain his condition, but (INAUDIBLE) --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  At the moment everyone is just sort of waiting and hoping and looking down that road, and hoping to see more ambulances or emergency vehicles come out this way.  I guess it‘s now close to an hour or more since word broke of the 12 miners being alive, but only one ambulance has come out since then, and we believe that it only had one miner in it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I must say, a little unnerving to me, that now an hour, almost two hours, has passed since that first word passed through the church, and there was all that jubilation, and we‘ve still not had any formal word from the governor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The governor is making his way now to the church, or is indeed at the church with some of the family members.

COSBY:  Governor Joe Manchin of West Virginia.  And we‘re told from another one of our producers that indeed he is talking to family members right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  What are the 11 -- the other 11 guys?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We have not heard anything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Then why would they just send one and not the others?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I can‘t answer that for you.  I was in the trauma room with the one sick patient.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Did they notify you in advance (INAUDIBLE)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  They did notify us he was on the way, but we‘ve not heard anything else from the scene.  We‘re still waiting like you guys are.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There‘s something going on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They just told us every one of them were dead because (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Right now, we‘re going to go to NBC‘s Ron Allen with some late-breaking news.  Ron, what‘s going on?

RON ALLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (on phone):  I‘m still --  what‘s happened seems to be terrible, and I just want to make sure that we‘ve got this right.  There‘s a big meeting going on at the church, where all the families are.  They are coming out, they are distraught.  One relative said that they are saying that there are not a lot of survivors.

The news here has suddenly taken what seems to be an incredible turn for the worst.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And we want to know why.  We want to know why.  And we‘re Christian people ourself.  We have got some of us is right down to saying that we don‘t even know if there is a Lord anymore.

We had a miracle, and it was taken away from us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I do, I call this unjustice, and I will tell you all right here, right now, I would plan—I plan on suing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This company (INAUDIBLE), they straight-out lied to a million people watching.  And all the families here, as you could tell, there‘s probably 20,000 people waiting for good news, and we got it.  And it was nothing but lies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (INAUDIBLE), we thought it was our family coming there, and our family ain‘t there.  Our family‘s dead, because they lied to us.



OLBERMANN:  Obviously, it was more than television that got the story so tragically wrong.

These headlines greeted thousands of readers this morning across the country—senators, congressman, state officials, all quoted, all wrong.

What happened?

And we‘ll speak with a witness to the confusion on the ground, and that terrible moment of realization that all the jubilation was in vain.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN:  Advertising for a new movie called “Munich” includes a clip of the eminent sports reporter Jim McKay solemnly telling the 1972 Olympic television audience that the Israeli athlete hostages were, quote, “all gone.”

Left out, of course, were the hours of confused reporting preceding that awful moment, in which many of the world‘s top journalists were intimating, even stating, that the athletes had survived, had been rescued, and were being freed.

To McKay‘s credit, he was largely circumspect, coordinating rather than concluding.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, the context of the 1972 Olympic massacre could not have been more different than last night‘s disaster, or last night‘s reporting from West Virginia.  But the structures of the two stories have striking similarities.

Unfortunately, last night there was not one Jim McKay, though, as you heard earlier, our own Robert Hager counseled caution as the time wore on, after the initial reports of rescue without any official word from West Virginia‘s governor.

The Associated Press, though, had bulletined that news at 11:52 p.m., quoting, “Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, more than 41 hours after the blast, family members said.”

That the family members said it, and it was often broadcast as fact, may be just one of the issues here, but broadcast coverage mirrored the AP report.  Quote, “Bells at a church where relatives had been gathering rang out as family members ran out screaming in jubilation.”

Every major and practically every other newspaper followed suit as editors faced the first-edition deadlines of their East Coast publications.  Some papers put the qualifier in the headline.  “The New York Times,” quote, “Twelve Miners Found Alive, Family Members Say.”  “The Times” also one of the publications that cited official sources as well as family members, official sources who ultimately were wrong.

Based on what the coal company is now saying was a garbled message from the rescue workers themselves still in the mine to the central command, the families were told the 12 miners were alive.  Naturally, they celebrated and gave thanks and told reporters.

But the company discovered within 30 minutes that the good news was just an illusion.  Yet by their own account, they waited more than two hours to tell the families.  The old joke about a lie getting halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its pants on has never been more tragically illustrated.

“One of the most disturbing and disgraceful media performances of its kind in recent years,” wrote the editor of “Editor and Publisher” magazine, Greg Mitchell, today.

Greg Mitchell joins us now from New York.

Good evening, Greg.


OLBERMANN:  The media coverage, TV, radio, print, Internet, it was certainly like watching lemmings going off a cliff, or a 100-car pileup on the highway in fog.  But if families and state officials and a senator and a U.S. congresswoman are telling you 12 miners are alive, journalistically, what should have happened differently?

MITCHELL:  Well, as you‘ve already shown earlier in the program, these reports were very scattered, often were based on secondhand information.  And my major complaint with what happened was that the media, both in TV and print, forgot the golden word “unconfirmed.”  It‘s a little three-syllable word, it‘s very easy for reporters and editors to inject this word, every other sentence, if need be.

So until a story is nailed down, I‘m sure you remember the famous incident involving Frank Reynolds at ABC, I believe, the story on the James Brady shooting, where the story kept changing, and he finally shouted on the air to nail it down.

And I think too often last night, we had people afraid to say “unconfirmed reports” or “reportedly” or “some sources say.”  So I think that was the major problem.

OLBERMANN:  But are we—in addressing it that way, are we satisfying newspaper and magazine and radio and television rules, and, in fact, not changing anything?  I mean, if you‘re the managing editor of a TV news operation, for the sake of argument, of this one, at 11:30 Eastern time last night, when that first flash comes from your people at Buchanan (ph), West Virginia, the families say all but one of the miners are alive, what do you tell your people on the scene to say and not to say?

And whatever they say, how does that change the fact that they are standing and hearing ringing church bells in the background and seeing happy faces?  Is it not going to be perceived as the same story by the people watching or reading it?

MITCHELL:  Well, it‘s typical, in this age.  But again, the use of the word “unconfirmed,” repeatedly, I think, can get that message across.  You don‘t have to lose the story.  You can still have the visuals, you can still get the sense that something dramatic may be happening.  But you can do that also with some caution.

I think Dan Rather used to be good at that.  He would underline things, and he would keep reminding people that these were unconfirmed reports in stories like this.  So I think that‘s the message that has to be heeded.

OLBERMANN:  And we still have the 2000 election, and we still have the Kilian memo story, so it doesn‘t always work even when people are prepared for that.

Are there differences in culpability here between electronic journalism and print?  I mean, if you‘re live on television or radio, and editorial decisions are being made on the fly, being made for you by the people you‘re investigating, and often that‘s the case, is that not, to some degree, built into that part of the equation?  But aren‘t newspapers some sort of window, albeit a smaller window than ever before, to think, to correct, to improve upon a first idea?

MITCHELL:  Well, as you said, this happened right at print deadline last night.  But also, what has happened now is that all these major newspapers have very active Web sites, and they are much more like TV news now.  They feel they have to get the stories up quickly.  They feel they have to be first with something, or at least be on top of something.  And it was on the Web sites that we saw almost all the major papers say clearly and plainly that the these 41 -- or the—these miners were rescued.

So I think the newspapers are becoming more and more like TV news, and the time pressures, and the necessity of stating something clearly, without these qualifiers.

OLBERMANN:  Give the media entirely one entire grade here, and also, do you think anything‘s going to change the next time this set of circumstances lays out in the same sort of manner?

MITCHELL:  Well, as we wrote on our Web site today, we chronicled at least two dozen editors around the country who have taken to their Web sites to explain or apologize or defend their coverage.  They felt the need to do that right away.  And instead of even waiting until tomorrow.

So I think this examination will take place.

OLBERMANN:  At least there‘s that.  Greg Mitchell, editor of “Editor and Publisher” magazine, on a night when this is extraordinarily relevant, great thanks for joining us.

MITCHELL:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  And of the mistakes at the mine itself, was there anything that could have been done, that was not done, to rescue those miners?

And how did one man survive longer than all the others, who were more experienced miners?

In tonight‘s other essential news, the prime minister of Israel, having suffered what aides call a massive stroke, in surgery.  The latest on his condition, ahead on COUNTDOWN.


OLBERMANN:  Our coverage of the aftermath of the mine tragedy in West Virginia continues.

And also tonight, the survivor.  How did Randall McCloy, Jr., live trapped 41 hours in the Sago mine as the 12 men around him perished?

And were he and the others working in unnecessarily dangerous conditions?

And more on the compound tragedy suffered by the families I Upsher County, hopes raised so high, only to be so brutally dashed.

We‘ll go back to the scene with more perspective.

And the night‘s other news, a massive stroke for Israel‘s leader.

And Congress awaiting the other shoe to drop in the Jack Abramoff corruption case.  Yesterday, 20 elected officials were thought to be in the crosshairs.  Now, says one report, it could be closer to 60.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.



OLBERMANN:  It is no exaggeration to say that the communities of Tallmansville and Buckhannon, West Virginia are in a collective state of post traumatic stress disorder.  So too parts of the country.  Hundreds, even thousands of miles from the from the catastrophe.

Our third story in the COUNTDOWN tonight, lost in the focus on the extraordinary conclusion was the start of this disaster, why did 13 men have to walk into a mine bearing safety violations classified as significant and substantial?  Why did rescuers have to wait to long to follow them?  The wife of the only survivor, Randal McCloy, the 27-year father of two, telling the Associated Press her husband found mining too dangerous and was enrolled in electronics courses, so he could get out of the mines.

The trauma director at Ruby Memorial Hospital saying McCloy is, quote, “quite stable, suffering a collapsed lung and severe dehydration requiring dialysis treatment.”  The hospital said he is sedated but responding to stimuli, such as the squeeze of his wife‘s hand.  Doctors there optimistic he‘s been spared most of the devastating effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, but there are some contradictory accounts as to how well he really is, coming from his own family.  Obviously circumstances will dictate which of those is correct.

The early investigation suggesting that many and perhaps most of the 13 men in the mine at the moment of the initial explosion survived it.  They did what they were trained to do, to retreat further inside to construct a barrier to keep out the toxic gases to await rescue.

Former miner Mark Radomsky is now the director of field services for Penn State University‘s miner training program and he joins us now.  Mr.  Radomsky, thanks for your time tonight.


OLBERMANN:  As a second generation miner and a man who had his own grandfather killed in a mining accident, would that come as any surprise to you that Anna McCloy said her husband is looking to get out?

RADOMSKY:  Every person is different.  And there are individuals who go into the mine and love it, and there are others who probably look to get out eventually and get perhaps a safer occupation.

OLBERMANN:  I would imagine, as a layman here, that the bulk of the miner‘s traing goes into avoiding accidents.  How much of it is involved?  Does it vary from mine to mine on the subject of surviving accidents?

RADOMSKY:  It‘s about the same.  It‘s standardized training, standardized subjects.  Every year the experienced miners get refresher training.  And they spend a significant amount of time on responding to an emergency and surviving a disaster.

OLBERMANN:  From where these men were found, from what little we know of the details of what happened, does it sound like they did everything they could have done to save their own lives?

RADOMSKY:  It sounds that way.  As we do the investigation or as the investigation proceeds, we‘ll know more and more.  But it appears that they did the things that they were trained to do.

OLBERMANN:  From the other end of the perspective, does it seem as if the rescue effort could have been started earlier?  Again, as a layman, you wonder, is there no means of giving rescuers a portable, safe environment that allows them to go in earlier than these rescuers did?

RADOMSKY:  Well, you probably heard it a number of times that it‘s essential that none of the rescuers get hurt or killed, so their safety paramount.  They have to do the safety check and proceed, sometimes painstakingly slow, ventilate the mine as they go, and just keep together.  So there‘s always going to be a delay in response time.  And then there‘s going to be that careful, methodical advance toward investigating where the miners are located.

OLBERMANN:  This next question might be the most foolish one you‘ve ever heard, it may be insulting, it‘s not meant that way, but over 100 years and more we have gradually reduced the number of jobs in this country in which fatalities are frequent, in which they are built into the equation.  With technological advances that we have, why are men still mining, instead of machines mining?

RADOMSKY:  Well, we made advances there with remote control mining and technology has driven mining over the last 20, 30, 40 years.  You still need the human operator to operate the remote control miner to make the decisions.  You can never replace the person.  So the person, the human factor is also there in the design, in the planning and in the execution and in the maintenance.

OLBERMANN:  I guess that‘s the way it will always be.  The director of the miner training program at Penn State University, Mark Radomsky, again, great thanks for your time tonight, sir.

RADOMSKY:  You‘re welcome.

OLBERMANN:  Twelve deaths in a mine with a history of safety issues and an injury rate that was three times the national average.  Is that where the investigators begin?  Joining us once more from Tallmansville, West Virginia, NBC News analyst Robert Hager.  Bob, thanks again for your time tonight.


OLBERMANN:  Two-hundred and seventy-three times safety violations in three years ago and a third of them listed significant and substantial.  New ownership two months ago.  In terms of the investigation, are these relevant facts or are they irrelevant ones?

HAGER:  No, they‘re certainly relevant and I‘m sure the investigators will be looking at all that.  Were any of these violations that were corrected?  Could they play a role in this accident?  I‘d caution against playing the numbers game right away.  I see it a lot in the airline business after airline accidents and oftentimes - first of all, these citations, it‘s hard to tell from the numbers, were these serious citations or not.  And oftentimes they had nothing to do with the accident.  So they‘re germane, as it were, but not directly relevant.  So all that will take time, but it certainly will be part of the investigation, yes.

OLBERMANN:  Clearly the rescue effort was ill starred from the beginning, 12 hours before the response began and robot malfunctioned and then they encountered groundwater as they put shafts down.  Will there be as much of an investigation of the rescue, as the explosion itself?

HAGER:  Yes, I would think that‘s a crucial part of all this.  Is how did that go, could anything have been done better?  I‘m intrigued by the question up just asking about was there a way the rescue teams could get in there faster.  It is true that they have to proceed cautiously, so that you don‘t have a double disaster and lose some of the rescue team.  But in this case it now appears that they had, since we know the miners survived the explosion, that there was an hour, an hour and a half, maybe, where those miners lived, the ones that eventually succumbed.

And the way was not blocked by debris or anything, through the main shaft.  You didn‘t have to go down from up above to get them.  So that does raise the question couldn‘t, with modern technology, some way be figured out where rescue teams get through there faster.

OLBERMANN:  Could there also be changes in how much material the men in the mines have with them in emergency situations?  How much oxygen.  You mentioned an hour.  Is there a way to give them more than that or significantly more than that?

HAGER:  I would think that that, too, should be—I‘d hope—a part of the investigation.  Especially now, when we realize that these men did survive the explosion.  If there‘s only an hour in those oxygen canisters, isn‘t there some way, again, with modern technology, that something could be developed that would give them more time?  A little more time in this case and they might have been able to work their way to the front of the mine and get out, sure.  So that would be a part of the investigation, too.

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, Bob, switching topics here, we‘re talking about the media coverage last night.  And we played a clip of what you had said after the first reports that they‘d all been rescued and you used the word unnerving there had not been word yet at that point from the governor.  From what we can tell you alone were cautious in the midst of the seeming relief last night.  What are your thoughts about the journalism last night?  Did we fail or were we part of a bigger failure that involved mine operators and local politicians and everyone there?

HAGER:  Well, I think there are plenty of failures to go around.  But the media is not scot-free in this.  I think as the media, there is a media involvement in this.  One of many things that went wrong.  But it does seem to me that we could have earlier on said that we are a waiting for official confirmation, that—it wasn‘t clear that this wasn‘t official word early on, especially because the governor had heard something and people heard him saying 12 miners were alive.  So now people were under the impression that the governor had said it.

But it was second or third hand information.  And proper journalism—this is all in hindsight, but they could have recognized that and could constantly have reminded people we don‘t have an official confirmation yet.

OLBERMANN:  NBC News analyst Bob Hager, it‘s—I‘m sorry it‘s under these circumstances, but we‘ve been greatly honored to have you with us these past couple days.

Thank you, Bob.

HAGER:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, more on the heartbreaking scene in the middle of the night as families of victims went from jubilation and devastation, and finally to outrage.

And half a world away, Israel awaiting the news of the condition of its prime minister, Ariel Sharon, reported in critical condition tonight after having suffered a massive stroke.  This is COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN:  There is word from the Middle East tonight of a major health setback for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  The other news of this day, our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, the news from Mr. Sharon does not appear to be good.  The prime minister listed in critical condition at a Tel Aviv hospital after suffering what is being characterized as a significant stroke, causing massive bleeding inside the brain.  The latest on his condition tonight from our correspondent Martin Fletcher in Tel Aviv.

Martin, good morning.

MARTIN FLETCHER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, hi, that‘s right, a hospital source told NBC News today, Sharon is beginning to undergo massive organ failure and now they aides for the prime minister say they can only hope for a miracle.


FLETCHER (voice-over):  Tonight a desperate dash from Ariel Sharon‘s farm in the Negev Desert to a Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.  It took an hour.  And during that time Sharon‘s condition worsened.  He complained of pain and pressure in the chest.  In the hospital he was unconscious and officials say his life appears in danger.

DR. SHLOMO MOR-YOSEF, DIRECTOR, HADASSAH HOSPITAL:  The prime minister was diagnosed with hemorrhagic stroke, with massive bleeding.  He was transferred to the operating theater for an operation.

FLETCHER:  This follows a mild stroke Sharon suffered 2 ½ weeks ago.  Doctors then said there was no lasting damage but they did find a hole in the wall to the heart and scheduled an operation for tomorrow.

Sharon went straight back to work and joked he‘d go on a diet.  But nobody‘s joking tonight.  As Ariel Sharon lies unconscious, the reigns of power pass to this man, Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister.  Olmert is a long-time politician from the rightwing Likud Party who agrees with all of Sharon‘s recent plans to change track and give up land in return for progress towards peace with the Palestinians.

Olmert followed Sharon when Sharon stunned the nation and left the Likud Part.  He founded a new party to speed up peace talks with the Palestinians.  Elections are scheduled for March 28, but now Sharon‘s life is in the balance and nobody know what will happen to the new party he founded.


FLETCHER (on camera):  Sharon‘s new party is ahead in the polls, but it‘s virtually a one man party.  And if Sharon does die or can‘t continue as prime minister, then nobody knows what will happen to Israel‘s government or the encouraging moves that Sharon was making towards peace.


OLBERMANN:  Martin, obviously, as you said, no one would know what would happen, but can you quantify it for us in either of those eventualities?  How much more would the political situation in Israel be destabilized by his absence?

FLETCHER:  Well, total turmoil is the short answer, Keith.  This party, Kadima, is, as I said, a one-man party, leading politicians joined him from the left and right.  But it was a major vote of confidence in Sharon.  Of course, the opinion polls give him a huge majority already, about 40 seats in the 120 seethe parliament.  In Israel, that‘s a very large number.

But Sharon actually has never laid down what his policy would be.  All people know is that he‘s talking about making peace moves with the Palestinians.  Without him there, it‘s just an open question what this new party would amount to, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Martin Fletcher in Tel Aviv, great thanks, sir.  Back here, the fallout in Washington surrounding the Jack Abramoff plea deal far less grim tonight.  The potential casualties there are purely figurative.  The challenge, figuring out how extensive they might yet be.

The “Wall Street Journal” reporting today that the Republican lobbyist has information that could implicate 60 lawmakers, other estimates have been far more conservative.  Either way, Mr. Abramoff was back in court today, pleading guilty to more charges and wearing yet a different hat.  Congressional correspondent Chip Reid bringing us up to speed.


CHIP REID, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In Miami today, Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud in the purchase of a casino cruise line, just one day after pleading guilty in Washington to fraud and conspiracy in of the biggest political corruption scandals in a decade.  Part of the deal in both cases is that Abramoff must now testify about bribes he says he paid to politicians for legislative favors.  Law enforcement sources say at least four Republicans are already under scrutiny, analysts say others are worried.

CHARLIE COOK, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  They don‘t know how many more names of Republican members of Congress or administration officials could be implicated.

REID:  Today President Bush and Congressman Tom DeLay joined a growing list of dozens of politicians, including some Democrats, who have returned contributions from Abramoff or his clients.  Some government watchdogs see a silver lining in the Abramoff scandal.  Maybe now, they say, frightened lobbyists and members of Congress will cut back on expensive meals at Washington restaurants, free tickets to skyboxes at sporting events and what about those lavish overseas golf vacations?  Forget about it.  Alex Knott of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, says this scandal might for lobbying reform what Watergate did for campaign finance reform.

ALEX KNOTT, CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY:  This could be another huge moment where reform could get passed based on this huge scandal.

REID:  Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich today warned his fellow Republicans the Abramoff scandal shows it‘s time for reform.

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER:  If they intend to retain the majority and as the majority leadership, they need to take the lead in saying to the country we‘ll clean this mess up.

REID (on camera):  Gingrich says this scandal is a sign the entire system of politics in Washington is unhealthy and any effort to portray Abramoff as just one bad apple is quote, “bologna.”  Chip Reid, NBC News, Washington.


OLBERMANN:  Meanwhile, the questions that will last a lifetime in West Virginia about how things got so horribly confused last night.  How families were still celebrating hours after officials knew 12 of the 13 miners were daddy dead.  That‘s next.  This is COUNTDOWN.


OLBERMANN:  The images are as difficult to watch or to imagine as were the sights late in the afternoon of September 11th, 2001 in New York City.  Ambulances there that had streaked Downtown to rescue the injured at the World Trade Center returning empty.  There were no injured.

Our number one story in the COUNTDOWN, disaster, at first seemingly averted and then awfully compounded, the miracle that wasn‘t.  Families streamed out of the church yelling “they‘re alive!” church bells rang.  The word “miracle” enveloped the scene.  Relief and gratitude swept a town, even a nation and perhaps in so doing it swept past the necessity of caution.

The truth, of course, was nothing but heartbreak for all but one family.  And there was even a report of one family member lunging in horror, grief and anger at a mine official when that official had finally revealed the truth.

What all of that did to the media coverage, to what the families believed, to what you saw or read we‘ve already discussed.  There‘s culpability, as Bob Hager suggested, everywhere.  But whose decision or decisions exacerbated the pain and doubled the nightmare of the West Virginia coal fields?

Ron Allen, NBC News correspondent who was on the scene throughout the night last night.  He‘s kind enough to join us to try to retrace some of these steps.  Ron, good evening.  And thanks for your time tonight.


OLBERMANN:  The coal company apologized for what they call a miscommunication.  They were extensive about that today, but is there any indication the families are anywhere near satisfied that they have been told enough about this miscommunication and especially why they waited so long to correct it?

ALLEN:  I don‘t think they‘re satisfied.  Most of them.  The families that were very low key today, we didn‘t see many of them.  They‘re dealing with this now much more privately, some have talked about lawsuits.  And of course, all this is happening while consumed with just an enormous amount of grief and anger and frustration.  Of course, they have every right to feel those feelings.  It was just an unbelievable set of circumstances that unfolded yesterday here.  They‘re not satisfied.  Many probably will never be satisfied.  And, of course, the bottom line is that people here lost fathers and husbands and sons and brothers and that‘s a bigger tragedy than anything else that‘s happened here today.  That‘s happened here this week.

OLBERMANN:  Monday and Tuesday, the governor of West Virginia had been insistent that the families wouldn‘t be learning about the fate of their loved ones from the media.  Yet just about at this hour last night, first it was Reuters News service and then the Associated Press reporting correctly, as it proved, that the Red Cross reported that one body already was found.  We know how the rest of the night went from the point of view of official news.  But is there a sense here of what happened to that process of disseminating official news last night?  Where the government‘s responsibility and the governor‘s responsibility was in this?

ALLEN:  Well, the process was set up.  The mine is over in that direction.  We were nowhere near it or the command center.  The families were for the most part in the church behind us.  And we were separated.  And the news was disseminated as this unfolded first to the families and then to the media.

What happened seems to have been just this odd situation where transmission came from below the—up down—down in the mine up to the command center.  It was overheard by a number of people at the command center.  In their excitement, relief, whatever you want to describe it.  Word just got out that there were survivors.  It just spread.

And remember, this is happening after some 45 hours of intense, intense work to find these people.  The emotion here, the feeling of dread was palpable.  And it‘s just an odd thing that that hope sounded so believable.  People wanted to believe that these men had survived.

And that‘s just—it just spread.  I don‘t know if there‘s any way you can really control that unless perhaps you just control the—how the information got out of the command center so freely over two-way radios.  So many people heard those transmissions which should have obviously been with hindsight much more quiet.

OLBERMANN:  Any sense, and I only have 15 seconds, I‘m sorry to put new this spot.  But is there any sense of what is next for the community?

ALLEN:  A lot of grieving.  A lot of mourning.  A lot of questions about mining here.  A lot of people with doubts about whether they want to be involved in that, but little other opportunity here.  A lot of pain basically for the short term.

OLBERMANN:  Ron Allen, who was outside the church in Tallmansville and Buckhannon last night throughout the whole ordeal.  Great thanks for your time tonight.

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Our MSNBC coverage continues now with RITA COSBY LIVE AND DIRECT from West Virginia.  Good evening, Rita.


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