Thursday, January 05, 2006


The desire to be first with good news is, I think, inherent in most people. Ordinary people now have tools in their pockets and purses that enable them to make a bid for "first" with greater speed and reach than ever in human history.

God rest the souls of the twelve who died in the Sago Mine in the last few days; God protect and restore to health the one man who survived; and please, God, be with the suffering families whose mistakenly raised hopes were so tragically dashed by the truth. And God, while you're at it, help us all to see this terrible event, illustrated by newspaper headlines declaring the twelve alive and by scenes of jubilation from inside the church where the families had gathered, as a morality play teaching us to be careful of the speed with which we can gather and disseminate information. Deliberation, where news of life and death are the subjects, should still be the rule.

I admit that I'm much more of a cryer now than I was before my kids were born. But is it possible not to be moved by the sight of those families hugging and laughing and praising God, joyous, grateful for an impossible miracle, juxtaposed with their bewilderment, anger, and heartbreak when they learned that the message "we found all twelve" had been commuted by optimistic inference to "we found all twelve alive"? I hope that when their first shock has passed, they'll be able to realize that no one at the mine could possibly have intended to lie to them; the mine officials, it's certain, wanted nothing so much as that impossible miracle. Who is guilty? The ones, whoever they were, who rushed to dial their cellphones. Who can blame them? Not I... though I hope I'll remember to take three deep breaths and ask myself some hard questions if I'm ever in a similar situation.

If the mine was, as I heard alleged on the news last night, a notably unsafe place to work, I hope the mine operators are prosecuted to the full extent of their culpability, and that safety will dramatically improve there as a result of these sad deaths. I do say "alleged" because the former head of Mine Health and Safety Academy, or Mine Safety and Health Academy, or whatever he was that wasn't MSHA, said that the mine had been cited some 200 times in the past year for safety violations - but did not say how many citations a mine considered to be "well-run" and "safe" would have had. (MSHA and OSHA reporting are notorious in my experience for their, ah, scrupulousness - for heaven's sake, don't pull on a hangnail at work, if you're an OSHA shop.) Mining is a dangerous business. Years ago, when my husband worked for a summer at a gold mine in Nevada, he had the dubious pleasure of an MSHA bulletin for reading material that, on a biweekly-or-so basis, featured the top three or four horrible deaths at mines, complete with line drawings. Less horrible injuries and deaths were reported but not illustrated. It was both gruesome and instructive.

Later, when we both worked in the environmental industry, we received annual training on confined space entry, most of which consisted of "Don't do it! For God's sake, stay AWAY from that hole in the ground! If your buddy goes down into the hole in the ground, DO NOT go after him - you may DIE!" An underground mine is the ultimate confined space entry: every time a person goes into that hole in the ground, he or she runs risks of bad air, cave-in, power failure, fire (in many types of mines) that, if it is not immediately deadly, consumes available oxygen... Yet coal still accounts for about half of America's electricity production, and underground mining is still a viable and in many cases preferable option in, especially, the eastern states. These men were working at good and beneficial jobs in an industry much more dangerous than sitting in an office. If the explosion that ultimately caused their deaths could have been prevented by reasonable and prudent means, I want that fact known and those responsible punished. But I think the accident's cause and preventability are far from clear at this point.

I can't end on that note. I'll end as I did some entries back: May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.

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