The tragedy of West Virginia supplied several instructions. America learned, for example, that newspapers do indeed have deadlines — times certain when the presses must roll. And that cub reporter who races into the city room crying, “Stop the presses!” is for movies only. Thus, the generic front-page banner, “12 SURVIVE!” is being archived in journalism’s cabinet along with the moldering “Dewey Beats Truman” page.
Critics complain of a lack of attribution, which is precisely what a headline is meant to lack. “White Star Lines Alleges ‘Titanic’ Sinks,” will not do. And the subject matter of the West Virginia story — life and death — does not admit of variable adverbs. The hour of its telling contributed to the colossal error as well as did the geography of the scene, an above-ground jigsaw designed for disaster.
The mine rescue teams communicated through purifying masks by radio with a pure air station and the command center, the latter above ground, near the mine head. The command center was commanded by three elements, federal and state mine safety officials and International Coal, the mine’s owner-operator, represented by the Dickensian-named Ben Hatfield. Down the road a good distance was a Baptist Church, set aside for the families of the missing. But they apparently had no direct communication with the Command Center, relying instead on envoys from the center or on rumors circulated partly at least by cellphone word of what some were able to learn by listening to the mine rescue team’s coded radio communication. We are told that the code word for dead body was “item.” The rescue team’s discovery of one “item” reached the Command Center after a confused message had indicated 12 “alive” a few minutes to midnight.
Somehow the alleged discovery of a dozen living men was communicated to the families at the church, setting off hymn and prayer. This was duly picked up by the press some distance away and became the basis for the rejoicing headlines. The governor of the state got the word and raced to the scene, to bear-hug Hatfield in the command center parking lot. But there was confusing word. In addition to a deceased man, rescuers had found a living miner who would turn out to be the sole survivor, Randy McCloy. They were respiring him and bringing him out. But he seemed to be the only one.
Hatfield began to worry. At 1:20 a.m. the mine rescue team reached the surface. Hatfield says he sent the State Police down to the church to tell the clergy to tell the revelers there was confusion, to restrain their celebration. There seems no record of the message getting through. At 2:15 the lone survivor was ID’d as McCloy. And the command center sent word to the church where the joyful noise unto the Lord was swiftly shifted to wrathful shouts against the bearers of bad news. By this time it was 3 a. m. and the major presses of the east had rolled and many unaffiliated television stations were left with useless happy “overnight” pieces to tide them over. Cable, however, shined.
There is another, more subtle instruction in the disaster. The lesson of how labor in America has changed, and how few men now earn their living wrestling with the earth, extracting goods from it, lifting against its gravity, daring its awesome retaliatory powers. The declining number of Americans killed annually on the job tells this story, but antiseptically. The West Virginia miners, and now their mourners, tell it graphically.
They are a rare breed, becoming more so.
As rare as that prescient managing editor who commands: “Stop the presses.”