Pittsburgh Post Gazette - Op/Ed - April 17, 2010

One week ago this evening I returned from six physically and emotionally grueling days covering the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in Montcoal, W.Va. Since then, I keep thinking of the 29 brave souls whose time on Earth ended deep beneath it. I pray they didn't suffer. I think of the family and friends left to mourn them. I pray their suffering is somehow salved. I think of the kindness bestowed upon me and other journalists as the tragedy unfolded around us. I pray karma rewards them.

In my career, I've covered unexplainable acts of God and unfathomable acts of man -- plane crashes, serial killings, tornadoes, police killings, suicides, the slayings of men, women and children. I have tried to shine light on the human condition.

Oftentimes in covering such tragedies we journalists are viewed as notebook- and camera-wielding carpetbaggers, as pariahs who descend upon a stunned community to unfeelingly sensationalize and capitalize on their pain and grief. Despite that perception in some quarters, we do feel, mourn, grieve. Who could not be touched by covering such events? In West Virginia, we were doubly moved.

During the five-and-a-half-hour drive to the Upper Big Branch mine, I steeled myself both for the enormity of the disaster -- at that point seven miners were confirmed dead with 22 missing -- and the impediments I likely would encounter. I soon learned that covering this calamity would be like no other.

As I pulled into Whitesville on my way to Montcoal, I came upon two Raleigh County deputy sheriffs who kindly directed me to a media center at the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Naoma, past the mine. There was no cell phone service for 30 miles, so if I needed a land line, they said, just come back and they would find me one. I was shocked.

That was only the beginning. Over the next week, the 100 or so journalists who covered the disaster, including the Post-Gazette's five-member team -- reporters Jon Schmitz and Sadie Gurman, photographer Michael Henninger, videographer Andrew Rush and I -- experienced not just a human tragedy but inspiring examples of the human spirit, as well. The people of this rural area did not just mouth the Golden Rule, they embodied it.

I found the school at the foot of a majestic mountain, sitting, symbolically, next to a coal mine and processing plant. The county school superintendent had offered the use of the school to members of the media -- the students were on spring break -- and, I later learned, had told employees to "treat them like family."

There were but two phones in the school office being shared by the dozen or so journalists there at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday. I knew a horde would soon arrive. I worried: How would I file my stories? But then I learned the school had opened its library and classrooms where we could use more than two dozen Internet connections.

Mike arrived and we took a ride back into Whitesville. All of those we met greeted us with open arms even as they revealed the rawness of their pain, the depth of their sorrow. Shortly thereafter, we learned that the death toll had risen to 25, with four miners missing. Now I hoped that at least those four would be found alive, providing a sliver of the miracle I covered at Quecreek mine in Somerset County in 2002 when nine trapped miners were rescued.

Later Tuesday, we were stunned when volunteers brought in the first of constant deliveries of food, drinks and snacks. Stores and churches and individuals had donated the provisions knowing that we were isolated at the
school, miles from even a convenience store. Here, in the midst of their unimaginable sorrow and loss, the people of this tight-knit community reached out to care for strangers. They did not view us as the enemy. They saw us as friends in need.

We were touched, not just by the horrible loss of life, but by the life force of these good, honest, hard-working, charitable, God-fearing and gentle people. Over the days they provided us with insights into their thoughts, lives and grief. They fed us pizza, hamburgers, chicken, spaghetti, hot dogs, sandwiches, ribs, cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans, cookies, doughnuts, snacks and gave us water, soft drinks and lots of coffee. They sustained and bolstered us with their generosity and benevolence.

Someone came up with the idea to take up a collection for the school and another for the community. Quickly, two containers filled with $20, $10 and $5 bills. On Friday, someone put up a sign that read "Thank you Marsh Fork Elementary and the people of Raleigh and Boone counties for your kindness." Journalists wrote messages on the sign and left their business cards. One message read, "The people of this area will forever have my love and respect. Thank you is not enough. You are what makes America strong."

Unfortunately, there was no sliver of a Quecreek happy ending in Montcoal -- when the bodies of the four missing miners were found late Friday night the tragedy became the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. The story
was rife with sorrow, frustration, heartbreak. But it also was a story of resilience, good will and charity.

As journalists, we hope to move people with our stories. In West Virginia,we were the ones who were moved.