A cruel jokeI imagine many West Virginians were asleep in the early hours of this morning, and did not go through the emotions that people a few time zones ahead felt on their behalf. Like many Londoners, Chris and I woke to joyous news on our clock radio: All but one of the miners trapped in Upshur County had been recovered alive. Then three hours later, our elation turned to bewildered horror when we learned that it was a huge mistake, and that in fact, all but one of the miners had died. But what we felt, of course, does not even begin to approach what the miners' families felt and what they will feel for the rest of their lives.
A spokesman for International Coal Group oozed in front of the cameras to insist that the company never actually said the miners were alive, but he didn't explain why they allowed relatives to believe it for three hours. Likewise, the media seem so far to have avoided examining their consciences about how the false information spread.
It's too soon to tell whether anything could have been done to prevent the explosion, or to get the miners out before it was too late. But the mine's appalling safety record certainly suggests that ICG's practices should be looked at very closely. In addition to this, West Virginia needs to rethink the pitifully low penalties it applies for mine safety violations. At current rates, an unscrupulous operator could conclude that it was more cost-effective to pay the fines than to invest in its workers' safety.
The one redeeming feature of the Farmington No. 9 disaster, which killed 78 miners in 1968, was that it led to the federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act. If the investigation into the Sago disaster leads to measures that make mining safer, then some good will have come out of a terrible event.