Friday, January 13, 2006

West Virginia Mining Disaster 2006

My title is a nod to the Bee Gees and their mournful tune "New York Mining Disaster 1941" (which, according to them, was written in the dark, and actually was based on a mine disaster in Wales that killed more than 200 children.) It is hard to know what to say about the tragedy at Sago Mine that hasn't already been said by the families of the fallen miners. The mining industry is about as foreign to me as drilling for oil or creating clones. So I generally wouldn't take an interest in what's going on unless we run out of oil, start using coal to heat my house or I meet a copy of myself socially. So far none of that has happened. While loading web pages on the subject I was assaulted by ridiculous sponsored internet ads like "Miners Needed! Work From Home!" Let me guess, you send a check for $500 to some post office box and they mail you a plastic shovel and instructions on how you can earn thousands by starting your very own mine in the backyard. Won't the homeowners' association be pleased! But the news from Sago was serious. Whether the miners had been found dead or alive, it would've all been a part of a week's work for the "always on" cable news media. Even so, the word "Sago" may not have entered the general public's Proper Noun Vocabulary but for one small aspect of the story. They got it wrong. As wrong as it is possible to be wrong. Big, bad wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Everyone got scooped by a mother with two kids who rushed out of the local church when Truth crystallized and hope shattered, punctuated by helplessly flailing fists. "There's but one alive," she said. She had hurried to the church with her kids when the bells first pealed the happy news that the men were alive. She wanted to celebrate with the families who expected to embrace their missing men that morning. Instead they were cold-cocked by circumstances that flowed from a tangled skein of communications. Stunned townspeople gasped their grief to CNN's Anderson Cooper, the only cable news reporter still on the scene in these desperate morning hours. Even he seemed disbelieving at first. Then the truth settled like the blackest of coal dust. Twelve dead. Only one alive. I was struck by the religious symbolism that seemed to permeate the story. Local businesses put up signs exhorting everyone to pray for the trapped men. People placing the fate of their loved ones in God's hands. Pleas for a miracle. The strains of the song "Amazing Grace" wafting from the church as waiting families struggled to keep despair at bay. At long last, the bells chiming the thrilling, but ultimately mistaken news. Then the Sago Mine's CEO had no choice but to bludgeon the ecstatic crowd with the facts. He had gone from Angel of Light to Messenger of Death with the phrase, "There's been a miscommunication." The stampede of emotions that followed was as inevitable as it was frightening. "God took away our miracle," said one family member. Several days later Anderson Cooper re-interviewed the woman who initially broke the story for (let's be honest here) the ENTIRE U.S. news media. She had taken two photographs inside the church. Not of the pandemonium that later occurred, but of the governor of West Virginia and Sago Mine CEO Ben Hatfield as they were about to deliver the stunning news. CNN showed both photos, which seemed unremarkable at first. (and I wish I could show you the photo but I can't find it online.) As I was staring at the shot of Hatfield I noticed in the background behind him a GIANT picture of the Last Supper. It was so big it almost seemed like a mural on the wall, the apostles looming over Hatield's shoulders. "Twelve alive, one dead." Is God trying to tell us something? If so, what? Maybe that our settled, comfortable way of life is about to be upended. That we're in for a reversal of fortune intended to pry us away from our material way of living and thinking, and toward our Creator. Crazy, I know. But no crazier that a big, fat picture of the Last Supper as a mute backdrop to that horrific announcement. No crazier than believing there is a meaning to everything that happens, and that God's healing power remains, all appearances to the contrary. No crazier than regarding this life as the briefest of rest stops, and realizing we'll all be moving on soon. I can only hope the hugely talented Canadian balladeer Gordon Lightfoot is composing a musical ode that will memorialize this tragedy as indelibly as his song about a sunken Great Lakes freighter, "The Edmund Fitzgerald."

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