Mine tragedy ‘miscommunication’

Today’s news of the tragedy at a coal mine in the US where a dozen miners were killed would, for most people, be just another terrible news story were it not for a truly awful element to it.

According to news accounts, information emerged initially that one miner had been killed and one other injured, seriously at that, with the rest ok. Scenes of jubilation and relief everywhere.

Then the awful truth – 12 had died in the mine explosion and there was just one survivor, the seriously injured miner.

A BBC News report quotes relatives saying that information that only one of the miners had survived came about three hours after they had been told 12 were alive. The mining company said it knew within 20 minutes that initial reports of 12 survivors were incorrect, but said it was not clear at that stage how many were dead.

The BBC report has Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal Group (ICG), the mine operator, explaining the communication gap:

[…] "There was a miscommunication and I don’t know really know whose end it was, but there was a miscommunication, that resulted in the command centre believing they were told that there [were] 12 survivors," he said.

"And apparently the intention on the part of the rescue teams was to confirm that they had 12 individuals and they were at that point checking vital signs, trying to determine who was a survivor and who wasn’t." The information was "an incomplete evaluation at the point that it went to the command centre", he said.

"[T]hrough stray cellphone conversations it appears that this miscommunication from the rescue team underground to the command centre was picked up by various people… was relayed through cellphone communications without our ever having made a release," he added.

The company stressed it had never confirmed all 12 men were alive. "But that information spread like wildfire because it had come from the command centre, but it was a bad information," he said. Mr Hatfield said that the company had waited until it could determine which of the miners were dead or alive to tell the families their fate.

This is not the moment to level any criticisms at anyone until all the facts are clear. Yet it isn’t too difficult to imagine that, in a fast-moving tragic event without any clear communication process – and if there is a situation for command-and-control communication, this is it – unchecked word-of-mouth information travels like lightning.

A real tragedy for the families concerned, with calamitous consequences for the company.

(ICG is part of the PIRA Energy Group based in New York. No mention of this tragedy anywhere on their website as I write this post. If I were running their PR or corporate communications, I’d have a statement on the site at least to acknowledge the event to publicly show that the company is wholly aware and engaged.)

[Update 5 Jan] ICG issued a press release through PR Newswire at 21:40 GMT yesterday (statement also on the ICG website), which includes this quote from Chairman Wilbur L. Ross:

[…] "No amount of money can take the place of a loved one, but the families
do have financial needs as well. Therefore, International Coal Group
has organized The Sago Mine Fund to provide financial support to the
families and will provide the Fund with an initial contribution of
$2,000,000. People who wish to contribute to the Fund may do so by
calling [+]1-212-826-2174."

4 thoughts on “Mine tragedy ‘miscommunication’

  1. This is indeed a tragedy.
    But how dreadfully worse it is that news kiosks in America continue to display USA Today with its banner headline celebrating 12 Survivors.

  2. Edward, if that’s the only newspaper who went to press with information that quickly turned out to be wrong, I’d be surprised.
    Easy to correct online editions, but not the hard copy.

  3. It was indeed not only one paper, but about 2/3 of the U.S. dailies that got the story wrong on Wednesday morning — so many partly because the Associated Press, which is the source of national news for many papers, had it wrong. There’s been a lot of discussion about how American newspaper failed this story. The chief culprits are failure to understand that if the only source available is not definitive, the story and the headline — especially the headline — needs to reflect that. If AP had said, “families told miners found alive” instead of “miners found alive,” they would have a better argument that they did the best they could with the info that was available at the time. A great story on this from Editor & Publisher is here: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001806511

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