Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Representative Democracy

“I need to see to some ID.”

Soon, you could be hearing that at election-time.

Most people are used to providing some form of identification for everyday tasks such as going to a nightclub, or even going to work. But a bill requiring voters to provide a photo ID at the polls, if approved, would disenfranchise many, some say.

The legislation originally was meant to stop local elected officials from running for empty seats on a school board or town council in mid-term (this happened recently in McKeesport School District), but the bill has changed into something that is unrecognizable to it original sponsor, state Rep. Mark Gergely (D, McKeesport).

“House Bill 1318 is simply closing an election loophole. That was the specific and only intent of the bill,” Gergely says.

As the bill changed, Gergely took his name off of the sponsorship list.

Now the legislation is all wrong, Gergely says. “It’s disenfranchising voters, which I’m completely opposed to. I’ve asked the governor to veto it,” he says.

Gergely notes that the amendment session on HB 1318 was the longest of the year. “It was a 2-day amendment session,” he says.

While Gergely does use the word disenfranchisement when referring to the bill, he doesn’t go so far is to suggest that the bill’s new sponsors intend to disenfranchise voters. But other critics of the legislation have no problem going there.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, says the bill targets the elderly and poor people—people who are less likely to have an ID card. “It certainly will have the heaviest impact on poor people. Minorities have more poor people than others,” he says. “This is a 21st century poll tax.”

Rep. Daryl Metcalf (R, Cranberry), disagrees. He says HB 1318 is good legislation.

“The voter identification component was one of my amendments. When we go to vote, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they show ID,” he says. “I think it’s common sense and appropriate to ensure that fraudulent votes aren’t counted.”

Metcalf wasn’t sure exactly how much voter fraud, if any, has been occurring of late in Pennsylvania. “What is important is that we close loopholes before they become a problem,” he says.

In addition to Common Cause, the Committee Of Seventy in Philadelphia is opposed to the legislation. Other opponents of HB 1318 include AARP, ACLU, ACORN, B-PEP, People for the American Way, League of Women Voters, Pennsylvania Voters Coalition, and other groups.

Kauffman says the arguments for the bill don’t hold up. "The defenders of this say it's to help prevent voter fraud. But nobody seems to know how many people have been prosecuted for voter fraud in Pennsylvania," he says. "We're creating an answer to a problem that doesn't exist."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Weak coroner, less justice?

The joy of some at seeing former coroner Cyril Wecht’s apparent downfall is evident throughout Pittsburgh, but I’m not sure that people realize what they will be missing with any other coroner, versus having Wecht at the post.

First, the fact that the coroner’s office now is an appointed position, coupled with the recent court decision decreasing the coroner’s power, makes me wonder what check we have now against the power of the district attorney’s office.

Before I go further I want to admit that I didn’t vote for Wecht for Allegheny County executive. Though I am an independent voter and I lean to the left, I voted for Jim Roddey because I felt that he would bring a more business-like approach to the job than Wecht would. Old Cyril runs his mouth too much, and the idea of him leading the county made me nervous. But I still respected his abilities as coroner, and I particularly admired his willingness to make decisions that contradicted the perspective of the district attorney’s office.

During his time as coroner, Wecht held numerous inquests in which he severely criticized police actions that resulted in a death, or in which he criticized corporate wrongdoings. He has not been afraid of any district attorney, or anyone else, and that may have been part of what led to his present situation. It may turn out that Wecht used his office for his own personal gain, but that is a matter for the courts. The fact remains that he was the person who was most willing and in the best position to criticize the district attorney’s version of events in an incident.

District attorneys, across the board, don’t like to be told that they are wrong. And it seems that a feud that Wecht had with District Attorney Stephen Zappala led to investigations that resulted in his recent indictment.

District attorneys, for all intents and purposes, are lawyer-cops who carry badges. They are part of the police side of the court system, and that’s OK and as it should be. But district attorneys must stay on the good side of cops in order to effectively do their jobs, and that’s fine, too. Still, to lessen or stifle dissenting opinions on matters as grave as people dying at the hands of police, or workers being killed in accidents that could have been prevented, seems to be less than democratic and less than American.

I am not suggesting that Zappala is corrupt, or that his intentions are less than admirable. I do think that given his occupation, it would be exceedingly difficult for him to give a truly unbiased opinion in some matters, particularly police-related matters.

And even in past cases in which the district attorney gave Wecht a free hand in an open inquest, such as the inquest into the death of ironworker Paul Corsi, the coroner’s findings haven’t necessarily swayed Zappala.

A little more than a year after a coroner's inquest recommended homicide charges against Dick Corp. for Corsi's death on February 12, 2002 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Zappala said the other ironworkers at the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center created the situation that caused the accident. Zappala didn’t press charges against the company, which served as the steel erection subcontractor for the project. He said there was insufficient evidence to press criminal charges against Dick Corp. or any other party for the death of Corsi, 38, who was killed when the 13th of 15 trusses in the convention center collapsed, crushing him and injuring two other workers.

It was those workers to whom Zappala pointed as having the greatest responsibility for the accident.

"If you're going to climb the steel, then you've got to see that the connections are made properly," Zappala said. If criminal charges were possible, the "raising crew" of ironworkers laboring on the truss would be charged, he said, adding that there just wasn't enough evidence to charge anyone for the accident. "The contributory responsibility of the raising crew is what this would come down to."

The press conference announcing Zappala’s findings in the Corsi case occurred just weeks before the planned grand opening bash for the convention center. The coincidence prompted some journalists to question whether or not Zappala's decision was motivated by politics. Zappala had indicated his interest in running for state attorney general, and it also was common knowledge that Dick Corp. contributed to his previous election campaign. Zappala responded that politics had nothing to do with his decision.

Zappala's conclusions contradicted the coroner's inquest findings. Led by Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht and presiding attorney Michael C. George, the inquest into Corsi’s death and the collapse at the convention center faulted Dick Corp. for the accident.

"The failures at every level of this project are so blatant and overwhelming that...errors and omissions on the part of Dick Corp. more than rise to the level of recklessness and grossly negligent conduct," said Wecht and George's inquest report. "It is the conclusion that the manner of death of Paul Corsi Jr., which had been listed as accidental, be changed to homicide, and that [Dick Corp.] be held criminally liable."

Wecht found that improper nuts were used to fasten the truss together. Smaller, one-inch nuts were used instead of larger, two-inch, heat-treated nuts. The smaller nuts were meant as secondary, or "jam" nuts, to be installed behind the larger ones.

At the time, George referred to an "almost cavalier attitude" on the part of Dick Corp. that led to the accident. "The testimony was abundantly clear that the ironworkers were never instructed about the need to use the case-hardened nuts," he said.

Even in a case as seemingly clear-cut as this one, Zappala and Wecht were in complete disagreement. I didn’t view that as necessarily a bad thing, and I still don’t. Allegheny County needs a coroner who is not afraid to challenge the district attorney. Unfortunately, we’ll never replace Wecht with a similarly cocky person who is beyond reproach, and who’ll fight the D.A. at the drop of a hat. I think that’s a bad thing.

Working on the sidelines

While most everyone in Pittsburgh was playing on Sunday, watching the Steelers game and living it up, I was working. But it was the kind of work I wish I could do every Sunday, because I was doing a story on the fans’ reactions to the game, while in the warm confines of a couple of Regent Square bars.

I enjoyed doing the story and seeing the game away from home, for a change. But I’m glad I don’t have to do the same kind of story for the Super Bowl.

By the riverside

Revitalization of Pittsburgh's riverfronts is not nearly on pace with other developments in the region, but it is happening in a few different locations. More and more people are recognizing the benefits of our rivers, and more are trying to take advantage of the recreational opportunities that the rivers can offer.

In Sewickley, efforts to revitalize the riverfront are at least a decade old. Years ago, Sewickley residents began to pull together to revitalize a blighted section of the borough’s riverfront. Those efforts culminated in the creation of the borough’s Riverfront Park.

Now, community members there are working on phase two of the redevelopment effort. The project will renovate an old boat landing in the borough, giving boaters easy access to the Ohio River. Folks in the community last week celebrated this new phase of redevelopment with a festive Christmas Tree Burn.

Old community’s new housing

In hilly North Versailles, few undeveloped parcels are left for developers to consider building on. But there are a couple of prime parcels of acreage left more or less untouched, and one of them soon will no longer be bare.
The old Long Vue Driving Range and fifty acres adjacent to it soon will be developed into a community. The development will include townhouses and a couple of senior citizen buildings, bringing a much-needed injection of new housing and taxes to the community.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Power of Steelers Prayer?

There were more than a few believers saying silent prayers during yesterday’s Steelers game, but with the team’s performance, there weren’t many nervous moments for fans wearing the Black and Gold.

Some fans have heard of the religiosity of particular Steelers, but the strong faith of others on the team is not necessarily widely known.

Center Jeff Hartings is unquestionably one of the most devout Christians on the team, and a voluntary prayer meeting always is held in his room on the night before a game. He has been called the “Christian Giant,” but he is not alone in professing his faith publicly.

Antwan Randle El, despite having a Muslim-sounding surname, also is a strong Christian who is not afraid of showing his faith.

These players are some of those who have been positively influenced by the team’s chaplain, Rev. Jay Wilson.

For more religious Steelers tidbits, check out this profile about Wilson that I had in yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Steelers nation

Some of the Steelers nation who were present at yesterday’s trouncing of the Broncos are likely world travelers. For those world travelers in the Pittsburgh area who are interested in meeting other well-traveled people, a new club is being formed. I had a story about it in the Post-Gazette yesterday.

But it’s not broken, Mayor

Architecture critic Patricia Lowry has a story today in the Post-Gazette that is right on. She argues against messing with Market Square, as new Mayor Bob O’Connor would like to do.

O’Connor wants to eliminate the streets running through Market Square, though the street layout is one of the most historic in Downtown Pittsburgh. He’d also like to give Market Square a makeover, though the park was beautifully renovated a few years back.

Lowry agrees with O’Connor that buses should be banned from the Square, and I agree. But getting rid of vehicle traffic and the grid of streets is nonsense.

Let’s just hope that O’Connor’s idea of re-making Market Square is one of those hot-air sort of things that a newly elected mayor is liable to say, and nothing that he really plans to do.

The idea of revamping Market Square and removing streets there is a perfect example of an attempt to fix what isn’t broken.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Sad ending

I just read about the miners.
Here's the story.

Staying mum at the mine

Unlike the situation at Sago Mine a few weeks back, officials in Melville, W.Va., seem to be keeping a tight lid on what information is revealed to the press.

Gov. Joe Manchin’s press secretary, Tom Hunter, is leading press briefings, cutting them short so officials can go back to the mine to help with the rescue. Unlike at Sago, where you could look right into the pain-stricken face of ICG president Ben Hatfield and ask him questions, there is no company representative for reporters to pester.

But you could look at Hatfield and know that his concern was genuine. At Alma Mine there is no human face representing Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine.

Who can blame the company for wanting to stay in the background? With the tragic misinformation that spread at Sago, it would be better for a company to be thought of as cold-hearted than for them to be viewed as incompetent and mean, as happened at Sago.

At a 1 p.m. news briefing televised by CNN today, Doug Conaway, director of West Virginia’s office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said the rescuers have brought the fire under control. Seven teams are underground in the mine, with a total of forty people working in the mine, he said. Two of the teams are working on the fire, and the others are searching for the trapped miners.

Jesse Cole, an official with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said that bore hole readings of the air in the mine gave readings of 89 parts per million of carbon monoxide. Another sample showed a reading of 69 parts per million—a sign that the mine is successfully being ventilated.

Manchin addressed reporters after safety officials, thanking everyone for their prayers, and for respecting the privacy of the families.

As at Sago, families of the two trapped miners have been waiting at a nearby church to hear word about their loved ones. They allowed the governor to reveal the names of their trapped kin.

Manchin officially named the two trapped miners. Don Israel Bragg is a 33-year-old miner with 15 years of mining experience, five of it in Alma Mine. Bragg, of Acoville, W. Va., is married to Dolores. They have two children. Ellery “Elvis” Hatfield is a 47-year-old miner with 12 years of mining experience, five of it in Alma Mine. He is married to Freda, with whom he has four children. They live in Simon, W.Va.

The governor stressed that safety officials are still working to get the miners out. “I repeat, [this is] a rescue operation. We are still in rescue mode,” he said.

Manchin has hinted that he would make an announcement about mine operations in West Virginia, after the conclusion of the rescue effort. “We should never be in this situation again,” he said. “The only interest we have is to rescue these miners.”

Some newsmen have repeatedly questioned the governor about his feelings about two mine accidents occurring within three weeks of each other in his state. One reporter pressed the governor, asking him what message he had for America, or for miners.

“We’re family…our goal is not to have one accident in the state of West Virginia,” Manchin said. “We’re going to do everything we can to never put another family in this situation.”

Melville story links

Of course a number of news agencies have made it to Melville to cover the ongoing story there, but not as many as at Sago, two weeks ago.
It might sound sad, but in terms of news coverage, two trapped miners simply isn't newsworthy enough for some news organizations to make the trip and do the coverage of this story.
I've found a few pieces on the rescue effort online.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is one of the publications that has reporters at the mine. Their story ran in today's paper.
The AP also has people onsite, no doubt hoping for good news like all of the rest of us. Their story is here.
The New York Times also is doing some coverage of the event. Their story is a little more evocative than others at the beginning of it, I think.

Another white church, and more dread

Overnight, family of miners killed in the Sago Mine comforted family members of two miners trapped by an underground mine fire in Melville, W.Va.

Two widows and some of the children of the 12 miners killed at Sago Mine were standing by the families, who are gathered in a nearby church, said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, during a 2:30 a.m. press conference today that was aired by CNN.

"They wanted to share,” Manchin said. “They felt very strongly about being here… They’re there right now with them.”

The family members waiting in a little white church to hear if their loved ones were alive or dead seemed a sad repeat of a scene that played recently in West Virginia, where 12 miners were killed after an explosion in Sago Mine, outside Buckhannon, two weeks ago.

The two miners trapped in Alma Mine No. 1 were separated from a crew exiting the mine Thursday after a fire erupted. The trapped miners, Elvis Hatfield and Don Bragg, have been missing since Thursday night. About 50 rescuers have been working nonstop to reach the miners, according to Jesse Cole, an official with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Rescuers early this morning drilled a probe hole into the mine and pounded on the drill but received no response. They also placed a microphone and camera into the mine, but found no one. Conditions in the mine resulting from the mine fire, which as of this morning had not yet been extinguished, are complicating the rescue effort.

“Roof falls are making it difficult to get in,” said Doug Conaway, director of West Virginia’s office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, at a 9 a.m. press briefing. “Conditions are making it difficult, and [the fire] has spread… It did flare up; we thought we had it under control.”

The Best Badger lumber store in the small town seemed to characterize the sentiments of those waiting for news, with the store sign tagged with the message: “Pray.” At Sago Mine, miner Randal McCloy Jr. was pulled alive from the mine, but officials have seemed less optimistic in this rescue attempt.

"Sago is very fresh in everybody's mind, but this is a different scenario," Manchin said, adding that the families "know that the odds are a little bit long."

“I’m the most optimistic person you’ve ever met... But I’m also a realist,” Manchin said. “The miracle we had at Sago [with the rescue of McCloy]… Who can explain that? The doctors can’t explain it.”

Alma Mine No. 1. is owned by Aracoma Coal, which is a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co. Unlike at Sago, where International Coal Group, the owner of the mine, had company president Ben Hatfield answering media questions, Aracoma and Massey officials seemed distant from the media at Alma Mine No. 1. Instead of company officials, federal and state mining officials are regularly updating the press on the rescue effort.

West Virginia congressman Nick Rahal also spoke at the 9 a.m. press briefing, which was televised by Fox News.

"The families, understandably, want to be at peace during this difficult time," Rahal said. "They want to see closure, as we all do."

Friday, January 20, 2006

Leaving Sago Behind

It’s like a terrible nightmare that keeps replaying in different versions. While the attention of the national media has mostly left behind the disaster at Sago Mine (some people are still paying some attention to the status of surviving miner Randal McCloy), a disaster has struck another coal mine. Now there are two miners trapped underground, again in West Virginia.

It seems that though the twelve men from Sago have been laid to rest, fate is conspiring to remind us all of what, and who, are being sacrificed so that we all can have electricity. Before you call me melodramatic, consider that more than half of all the electricity generated for use in this country is produced by coal-fired plants. Many of these plants are big polluters and too old to be revamped to be far cleaner. But I dare you to try to go for half a day without using anything electric.

* * *

By the end of my time at Sago I was desperate to get out of there. I had been up for a couple of days and covering the rescue attempt at the mine for 23 hours straight. I hadn’t slept, since I was covering the incident on its first night, and it seemed at the time that there was a strong possibility that the miners would be rescued that night. Press briefings were held every couple hours, seeming to offer some possibility of hope.

We media all regularly headed up to the mine’s tipple and packed ourselves together in a small room in the hope that Ben Hatfield would throw us a line. Please, anything, we pleaded.

I had this gnawing feeling in my stomach, partly from the excess coffee and agitation I’d felt for a day, but also because I was scared. I was scared of what would happen when the bad news came out that at least some of the miners had died, which I figured had to be true. Time had been against those trapped men from the beginning. Some already had made it to the sweet bye-an-bye. They were likely better off, and we were all sitting there fretting.

But dogs will be dogs, and the media will be dogs sometimes, too. The gripping nature of the unfolding story of Sago was just too newsy to resist. It was happening right in front of us, and it seemed for a while that it could be resolved at any hour. We surrounded family members of miners like hungry whelps feeding on road kill. Some of the family members actually suffered us gladly, much to their credit.

A few days after Sago, when I told a photojournalist friend about covering the rescue and leaving just a few hours before the false news came out, he responded as I expected.

“You left just before it got good!” he said.

I disagreed.

“When the bad news came out after the fake good news, you know who they turned, on don’t you? The media,” I said.

“You know it,” he agreed.

I felt that I left Sago when there was still hope. The bad news ended up dashing hopes and nearly crushing spirits.

* * *

Because of the way I was dressed and perhaps due to my carriage, people at Sago kept mistaking me for a local.

Late Tuesday afternoon, a couple of reporters were sitting under a Red Cross tent near Sago Road when I walked by.

“He’ll know, ask him,” one of them said.

“Hey, what’s the capitol of West Virginia?” the other guy asked me.

“Are you asking me because you think I’m from here?” I said. The guy said aren’t you, and I responded that I was not, but that I did know the capital.

“I believe it’s Charleston,” I said.

“No, that’s South Carolina,” the first guy said.

After conferring with a few other people, he realized I was right. He didn’t apologize for telling me I was wrong.

* * *

At Sago, for a couple of days the personal stories of the families of the trapped miners were worldwide news. The deeply personal tragedy had become a universal tragedy for millions of people across the globe. And the media were emotionally vested in this rescue; they were only human.

In all of our lives, what is especially important to us is uniquely personal. Ties such as the filial bond, the fraternity of workers, and the spousal tie form the infrastructure of our lives. The impression made by the loss of a loved one is another life-changing event that can build up or destroy a person. Many of us know this, because we have lost someone we loved.

Many of us have waited outside an emergency room or intensive care ward to hear if our loved one is alive or dead, and exactly how he'll live if he does survive. Just like the miners' families, we have waited while expecting the worst news. Sometimes we've gotten that terrible news. This is part of how we are able to relate to these folks.

So we news consumers waited and watched, hoping and praying that there would be some light at the end of the mineshaft. There was a sliver of hope, in the survival of McCloy, who now is in a “light coma.” Why did he survive all of those choking hours in the mine, and the others didn’t? Maybe he has a story to tell that will blow us all away.

With more miners being killed and trapped in this country seemingly every week since Sago, I wonder if it would make any sense to not view these incidents as a huge wakeup call for the mining industry. I left Sago weeks ago, but I can’t forget about it. I don’t want to.

The times are a changin'

I read Bob Hoover's recent piece about blogs and I found the story to be condescending toward bloggers and other journalists in Pittsburgh.

I had to make this post, largely because of the excellent piece written by Mike at Pittsblog. Mike nails it with his perspective on the changing news hole in the media, the exodus of advertising revenues to the Internet, and also the high-and-mighty attitude of some old school journalists who just don't get it.

Mike contradicts Hoover, by reminding readers that Potts, Togyer, and of course I have a blog, as well.

I'll remind readers that I was looking into lobbyist disclosure in Pennsylvania before the mainstream media was, and I also have reported on the imminent sale of St. Nicholas Church in the North Side (the oldest Croatian church in America) to a Croatian cultural group, though no other Pittsburgh media have mentioned it. I have written about issues of interest such as pending state legislation, all because I want to inform readers, not even for a paycheck. My stories and personal essays have been of interest to readers in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York and beyond.

Speaking of which, I've got to holler out to Jason Togyer for being the first to mention my Sago Mine stories. It's nice to have peers recognize your work.

Here We Go

Note: I originally published this piece in Barnestormin in August of 2005. It seemed more timely now, so here it is again.

One evening last August, we were all sitting in the Maritime Pacific brewery pub in Seattle, a stop on our barhopping tour for my brother Sean’s bachelor party. I’d just come in from the street after having a smoke, and I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer. The place was loud with the conversations of my brothers and their friends at a couple of tables in the back corner, closest to the bar. That din was added to by the conversations of a couple of other wedding parties at two large tables in the front of the pub.

The bartender with the Prince Valiant haircut looked at me like I was goofy earlier when I’d asked him if he had any matches—“This is a smoke-free bar,” he said with a horrified expression.

My brother Duane sat down next to me. At six feet five inches tall, and at least 250 pounds, Duane is obviously a former college football player. He played for West Virginia’s Mountaineers for three bowl appearances.

He was sitting on the bar stool next to me and he leaned toward me, wearing a slack-jawed, simpleton look:

“So how ‘bout them Stillers?”

He was trying to start conversation, and he said it seems that the team could be pretty good this year. I said that’s what I’ve heard, but we’ll see. We talked on, and somewhere along the way, the old saying came up. I don’t know who said it first, but whoever uttered the words did so in a guttural Pittburghese:

“Here we go Steelers, here we go!”

I repeated it a bit louder, in a more Pittsburghese voice:

Ear we go Stillers, ear we go!

Duane picked it up again, and he and I called out the words in unison, louder, and clearer: “Here we go Steelers, here we go!”

By that time, my brothers and Sean’s other Pittsburgh friends had picked up the chorus, and our voices overwhelmed the others in the room as we half-sang and half-yelled out the saying, with many of us following the second “here we go” with two taps of our beer glasses on the tables and bar. After the twenty or so of us repeated the phrase several times at the top of our lungs, we all broke into cheers and toasts and drinks.

I looked around at the few dozen others in the small bar, people not from Pittsburgh, and they’d all gotten quiet and were staring at us with stunned looks, like they weren’t even quite sure what we’d been chanting. I shook my head and laughed, feeling a Pittsburgh superiority because these Seattleites didn’t recognize the chant of the fans of the Super Bowl Steelers.

It was a chant that we’d all said in Three Rivers Stadium during the games, and on our way out of the stadium after another win. The saying was a prayer that we’d go to the Super Bowl. It also was meant to be something of a threat to the teams that would play the Steelers in upcoming game. It was Pittsburgh’s unofficial anthem. This was, of course, before someone made the phrase into a dopey-sounding song.

When the Super Bowl Steelers had preeminence on the gridiron, many people in the area were losing jobs in the industry that had built up western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl victories were like a gift from above when we needed it the most. Back in those days, even tea-totaling fans had parties with black-and-gold streamers and three or four television sets blaring the game in different rooms, and plenty of beer and food for the neighbors and friends. These wins momentarily took our parents’ minds off of worrying about their jobs, and our future.

Through it all, that old prayer never lost its hope. These days, even the most cynical Steelers fan is liable to start humming the phrase again.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Shouting back to NYC

I want to send a holler out to Derek Rose and Todd Maisel, in New York.

Derek wrote the stories covering the Sago Mine tragedy and Todd made the photos for the New York Daily News. Derek was kind enough to mention a couple of my Sago blog stories on his blog, where he has written his personal account of what happened when the miscommunication went down at the mine.

Todd also has written a story on his coverage of the tragedy. Pittsburgh readers who check out his story will find it interesting to see Martha Rial and other Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffers referred to and quoted in the piece. It's also nice to see a story written from the photographer's point of view.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Resistance is futile

It's official. I am a cyberjournalist.
Anybody have any news tips?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Gas wells, a club, and saved critters

Some say that America’s dependence on foreign fossil fuels has compromised our ability to objectively consider some problems in the mid-east. Others say that dependence is simply dangerous for this country’s stability. That’s why it’s always refreshing to hear of inventions that are trying to help America become more self-sufficient in fulfilling its energy needs.

A Jefferson Hills company is beginning to market a device that is said to remove water and oil from “choked,” or under-producing or abandoned natural gas wells. I had a story about it recently in the Post-Gazette.

Time was when ladies met together in each other’s homes to edify themselves, teaching each other about all sorts of subjects. Leave it to quaint little Zelienople to still have such a ladies-only club, known as the Zelienople Traveler’s Club. The club is celebrating its centennial this year

It might sound boring to some, but these ladies are a hoot.

Everybody needs a home, from the lowliest drunkard to the scraggliest mongrel. Thanks to some warm-hearted local residents, a whole passel of scraggly mongrels has been saved from flood-ravaged New Orleans. This team effort saved 80 dogs and 25 cats, so far.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Mass Media Hysteria in Tallmansville

If you met me, you’d never mistake me for CNN’s Anderson Cooper. I couldn’t even pass for the most anonymous schlub broadcaster at the smallest TV station around. But I never expected that during the Sago Mine rescue attempt, folks in Buckhannon and Tallmansville, W. Va., would mistake me for being a miner.

After stupidly getting off of the Interstate and following a pitch-black foggy road for 30 miles or so to get there, I set foot in Buckhannon on Monday night, stopping at one of the first mini-mart gas stations I saw. I got out of the car and asked a woman who was leading her daughter into the store where Tallmansville was.

“Are you going to the mine?” she asked.

I said I was. She gave me exact directions to Sago Road, where the coalmine entrance is located, just a few miles outside Buckhannon.

“You with the rescue?” she asked.

“I’m with the media,” I said.

I went into the store to get some coffee and other provisions. The young woman working behind the counter chatted with each customer, talking about the disaster.

“A friend of mine said the doctor told one of the guys who got out of there this morning that he’d never see again,” the clerk said to the customer, who was the same woman I’d asked for directions. The woman had in tow her fidgety daughter, who was about nine.

“I heard they’re going to close the schools tomorrow,” the clerk said.

“Yay!” the little girl cheered, jumping into the air.

After the woman and her daughter left, I spoke with the clerk for a bit, telling her I was with the media and trying to find out what she knew about the accident.

"It's a shame that it takes something like this to put this place on the map," she said just before I walked out.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that people were mistaking me for some kind of local. Part of it could be that I’m a pretty beefy guy, the kind of guy who looks like he might work with his hands. I also was dressed so that I was seemingly indistinguishable from some of the locals. With my nondescript beat-up dark blue jacket, no-name charcoal-colored fleece, regular hiking boots, jeans, and a dark baseball cap slung low over my face with my shaggy hair sticking out on the sides, I guess I might’ve passed for one of the boys from that side of the tracks, though I wasn’t trying to do so. I wore the jacket and fleece for comfort, and because I was going to a muddy coal mine during a continuous rain, so I figured there was no need to look pretty. Also, I didn’t want to stand out too much.

When I ran into the photographer who was covering the disaster for the news agency I was stringing for, he seemed amazed at my appearance.

“You look like you’re from here,” he said, laughing.

“I’ll take that as a compliment. That’s the look I’m going for,” I said.

I wasn’t trying to impersonate a miner or a West Virginian. I like my beat-up blue jacket and I wear it all of the time and will continue to do so, even if it makes some people think I look like I’m from the country. I also like all of the other clothes I was wearing, which were not the uniform of journalists at this media orgy.

Some of the sillier reporters were wearing suits and ties when they got there, but most had the presence of mind to dress down a bit. Dressing down for this group of journalists, though, meant wearing a spotlessly clean blue or black North Face jacket, a crisp dress shirt, new jeans and Vasque hiking boots. I also noticed that nearly all of the journalists tended to be slender or slightly built, and I am far from that body shape.

So forgive me for looking like the locals. Perhaps that’s what people should have expected, since I am a Pittsburgh native.

A while back a friend of mine who grew up in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, opined that Pittsburgh is not the East, and it’s not the Midwest, either.

Well, what are Pittsburghers then, I asked.

“Pittsburghers are like part Pittsburgh, part West Virginia,” he said.

He meant that Pittsburghers are city people, but they’re also part hillbilly, too. I didn’t disagree with him, because while his view is simplistic, I basically agree.

* * *

Maybe if all of the journalists who went to Tallmansville were locals or at least from within a few hours of there, or perhaps if there weren’t any TV cameras at the scene of the disaster, false hope would not have spread like a mine fire, then flamed out just as fast. I am glad I was taken off of the story just a few hours before that false hope was reported and published by all of the media at the scene of the disaster.

“It was attributed,” broadcasters and editors have replied when questioned about the fact that they published terrible falsehoods.

It seems to me that the reporters, photographers and cameramen got their reward. They wanted a big story, one way or another, and their insistence and pressure might have been partly responsible for false hope spreading so fast.

There were dozens, if not hundreds of journalists buzzing through the area during the rescue attempt. I personally spoke with a photographer from the New York Daily News, a friend who was one of two reporters for The New York Times, a reporter for National Public Radio, a People magazine stringer, a Baltimore Sun photographer, and a guy from The Independent, in London, plus many other reporters. I spoke with a Norwegian camera crew, as well as folks from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, folks from the Columbus Dispatch, reporters from other smaller, local papers and many other people.

On Monday night up at the mine’s coal tipple, satellite trucks, picnic tents, and bright-as-day camera sets ringed the small building where company officials were holding press conferences. Other, smaller TV trucks also were down by the entrance of the mine, their lights extended high above the scene, as if lighting a movie set.

By daylight Tuesday, national broadcast hotties had come to the scene. It was almost as if the national news was bringing in the first-stringers, after having some second-teamers do all of the work. In truth, some of them were at the scene from Monday night on, relentlessly pointing their lights and cameras at anyone who might make a good interview.

I suspect that people simply couldn’t resist all of that sexiness—the come hither-looks of the broadcasters or the bold, unflinching eye of the camera. All of that attention made people want to practically get naked in front of the camera, to pour out their souls and cry, to tell a lie in the hope that saying it might make it true.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Other Side of the Pittsburgh Seam

“Tell all I see them on the other side.”

-Sago miner Martin Toler Jr., 51, in a farewell note

Thursday 1/5/06,

-about 9 p.m.

My mind is reeling from story-lag, since I went back to work early Wednesday after coming home late Tuesday from the Sago Mine. I was a sleepless bit player in that media circus, covering the story for a news group from 9 p.m. Monday until Tuesday around 8 p.m. By the time I left, I’d had no sleep in nearly two days and I was exhausted and ready to pass the baton to a colleague who was taking the story over from me.

I also wanted to get out of there because I couldn’t take the possibility that all or most of the trapped miners would be dead by the time rescuers reached them. That scenario turned out to be the reality. I’d had a feeling it would be so, even as I drove down to the coal mine in Tallmansville, W.Va.

The 2002 miracle of nine men pulled out alive from the Quecreek Mine was, indeed, a miracle, if not simply a stroke of incredible luck. I knew there’d be no similar miracle at Sago Mine. Lightning won’t strike twice in the Pittsburgh Seam, I thought as I drove down a hilly, fog-draped back road in the rain outside Buckhannon.

Outside the Sago Mine entrance, family and friends of the trapped miners sat huddled under blankets, hunkered down in lawn chairs arranged in circles. In the midst of and away from the drone of TV and satellite trucks, the miners’ kinfolk talked quietly and leaned on each other, trying not to think the worst.

On Monday night, the first thing I noticed while traveling through the countryside outside Buckhannon to the mine was the smell of wood burning. Coupled with the chilly winter air and the cars parked all over the fields, a city-slick visitor might have made the mistake of thinking that the gathering was a jamboree in the hills, or maybe some huge family reunion. You could make the mistake, if not for the gnawing hum of emergency vehicles, the flashing police cars and the overhead lights flooding Sago Road.

I looked around for a campfire, and I realized that many of the old A-frame houses along Sago Road were belching smoke. I noticed the large, well-stocked wood sheds behind the homes. The smell of wood burning in city neighborhoods, while not rare, is never so pervasive as the smell of wood burning in this stretch of Upshur County coalfields.

At times, the gathering resembled a vigil for the trapped men. The unfolding story also marked this area as a place of dread, anticipation, and round-the-clock news.

TV journalists from Norway to New York queried mine officials in accented English. Outsiders of all shapes had descended on this otherwise humble backwater. The quiet countryside changed forever early on Monday morning, when an explosion at the mine rocked houses miles away.

* * *

Officials weren’t sure what caused the explosion, but they did not rule out a lightning strike. Hatfield said there was evidence of a blast but no indications of major damage to the mineshaft. In 2002, nine Pennsylvania coal miners were rescued in Somerset after a 77-hour ordeal in a flooded mine shaft 240 feet underground. And in 1968, an explosion at a mine in Farmington, West Virginia, caused 78 deaths. Nine of the 13 trapped men at Sago had more than 30 years' mining experience and the average for the group was 23 years.

"This is not a rookie crew underground," said Eugene Kitts, a vice-president for International Coal Group, the mining company. "So we're just trusting that their training and their mining instincts have kicked in immediately and they've taken every step possible to put themselves out of harm's way."

Hundreds of family and friends gathered at a nearby church where the Red Cross had set up operations. Strangely to me, the Sago Baptist Church was on a crossroad that intersects Sago Road, which is how you get up to Sago Mine. If you followed the road from the church across Sago Road, you’d end up at the mine entrance.

I wondered which came first, the mine or the church. I had a feeling it was the mine. The church was likely built after the mine, to minister to the needs of the people who worked there.

* * *

Through the first days of the rescue effort, International Coal Group officials held regular press briefings. They held them on Monday at 3 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 10:40 p.m., and around midnight. They continued to hold them regularly on Tuesday, at 1:30 a.m., 4:45 a.m., and on and on.

At a press conference at 10:40 p.m. Monday, International Coal Group vice president Roger Nicholson said one of two teams working to make it to the miners had progressed 4,800 feet into the mine, while the other team had not made it as far.

“We are going to change out the teams as they work” to keep the work going continuously, Nicholson said. Then he added a foreboding note: “The drilling hasn’t gone as well as we’d hoped.”

Though the drilling crews had arrived at the scene around 5 p.m., the drilling didn’t even begin until around 10:30 p.m., Nicholson said to the media, who were smashed together in a hot second-floor room near the mine’s coal tipple, a mile or so from the mine’s entrance road. He explained that miners carry a box with an oxygen mask and an hour's supply of oxygen.

“We’ve had no contact with the miners since the incident this morning,” Nicholson said.

Kitts said the rescue crews were making good progress toward reaching the trapped men. He seemed cautiously optimistic about the fate of the miners. Somebody asked him about the training the miners had been given to make it through such a crisis.

“The training these miners have…They should get to a place where the air is good. That’s our hope, that they are in such an area,” Kitts said.

He noted that company officials believed the rescue crew at 4,800 feet was still a mile away from the trapped men. “We’re hopeful that the carbon monoxide detected this morning was a by-product of the explosion itself,” Kitts said. A bit later, he again qualified the slow progress that the rescuers were making: “They’re still proceeding by foot and working by hand.”

* * *

Around midnight, International Coal executives had a press briefing at the tipple. At that point, new media people still were coming in, and the second floor room by the tipple was getting hotter and more uncomfortable. Nicholson told the media that a rescue crew was 7,800 feet into the mine. “At that level, we’re still seeing some good air quality readings and no obstructions,” he said. “We anticipate beginning to drill shortly.”

Some reporters questioned why the hole was not yet being drilled.

“You have to locate where the hole should be drilled, bulldoze out a level pad… The pad [initially] wasn’t large enough for the drill rig,” Kitts said.

The question again came about whether rescuers had heard any sound of communication coming from the miners, and how the trapped men would communicate if they could.

“If there is anything—the roof, a water line, the track… If they have access to that, they should be tapping,” Kitts said.

At the 4:45 a.m. press briefing on Tuesday, Kitts said the drilling had begun on the monitoring drill hole. “It’s going quite well and should be completed around 6 a.m.,” he said. “The drill will stop twenty feet above the mine roof…Mine rescue crews will be removed as a safety precaution. Then the drill will go into the mine, and at that point we’ll monitor the air quality” and put a camera into the mine.

Then it was time for the high-tech approach, as the company executives discussed the robot that was being inserted at 9,200 feet into the mine to investigate the situation. “The mine rescue teams made it 9,200 feet and they are stopping to evaluate” and allow the robot to do its work, Kitts said.

At that point, it had been nearly a day since the explosion at the mine happened around 6:30 Monday morning.

“There have been no reports of [roof] falls. The teams coming out said the mine is in good shape,” Kitts said.

Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal Group, said rescuers and investigators were clearly seeing signs that combustion had occurred. “It appears to have been an explosion of some sort,” he said.

Hatfield wore a desperate look, and we all saw it, as did millions of people watching on TV. Somebody asked him if the miners would have tried to get out of the mine if they were alive.

If they barricaded themselves in, they wouldn’t try to make their own way out, Hatfield said, adding that miners are taught to construct a ventilation barrier and maintain a safe environment. It was obvious that company officials still thought the mine could be very hazardous to rescuers.

“As desperately as we want to get them to safety, we can’t put more people in danger in the process,” Hatfield said.

“Is there anything you’d like to tell the viewers at home?” a TV reporter asked Hatfield.

The company president looked straight into the camera, a sad and pleading look on his face, and said: “Pray.”

* * *

Around 6:30 Tuesday morning, Hatfield looked more forlorn than the last time we’d seen him. He told reporters that at 5:38 a.m., the drill had penetrated the mine shaft. The drill crews pounded on the drill and listened for a response, and there was no response. A camera probe of the mine found no signs of life.

To me, and I am an optimist, it seemed that carbon monoxide levels in the mine might be far too high for anyone to survive.

“We are very discouraged,” Hatfield said. “We remain determined to continue the search as long as there’s hope.”

Daybreak brought light to the desperate scene at the mine’s entrance, but it brought no new rays of hope to the family and friends of the miners. Their circles of lawn chairs were mostly put away. They huddled together and comforted each other, talking lowly, lest a reporter should eavesdrop.

A couple of hours later, at 8:39 a.m., three state police cars drove up the road to the mine’s entrance. A couple of minutes later, two more police cars rolled up the road to the mine. It might’ve just been a shift change for the cops, but given the dread and waiting that hung in the air, any small change seemed like it might be significant.

In addition to the media, many people had flocked to the scene after hearing of the trapped miners. J. Michael Poole, of Pittsburgh, vice-president of Bridgeville-based Union Drilling, helped with the rescue at Quecreek Mine in 2002, and came to Sago to offer help if it was needed.

“At this time, the type of drilling equipment we have is not needed,” Poole said. The company, which is an oil and drill contractor, had equipment waiting at its Buckhannon location. The company used its high-pressure air compression equipment at Quecreek.

Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, also came to lend a hand. “West Virginia’s a small community. We just wanted to give whatever help we could,” he said.

I asked if there was much possibility that the miners had breathable air to sustain them long enough to be rescued.

“It’s absolutely possible that there are some areas with the right living conditions. It’s highly possible that they barricaded themselves [in],” Hamilton said. “This is a mining operation that goes horizontally into the seam, versus a vertical shaft… It is highly possible that there could be surface fractures that could be a source of fresh air.”

Hamilton added a note of caution about trying to read too much into the situation. “This is a unique situation. We’re not sure what we’re dealing with here,” he said. “This is a real unique experience. We’ve not had a similar situation in 15 years.”

Since Monday night, when I arrived at the scene, West Virginia state troopers had been running interference on Sago Road, keeping out people who didn’t belong at the scene. Still, somehow or other all sorts of extraneous folks had made it there. Most often, their good intentions probably helped them get to the mine.

Well-intentioned folks like a tall older gentleman I’ll simply call The Preacher, because of his look, carriage, and ever-present smile, made it in to offer help. The Preacher facilitated contact between reporters and state officials and all sorts of other folks. He pointed out the governor’s car as it was passing slowly by me, and I was able to shout a couple questions and get a couple of answers from Gov. Joe Manchin.

After a while, I was calling this informal press liaison The Reverend, and he was calling me Doctor Reuters.

Nick Paglia, a miner with rescue experience from Stewartsville, Ohio, had been watching the coverage of the rescue attempt since he’d heard about it on Monday. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about the trapped miners.

“I prayed all night. I asked the Lord to give me the strength. I prayed constantly,” Paglia said. He’d come to the mine to offer his help, which those in charge of the rescue effort declined.

He didn’t look too hopeful, but he sounded hopeful.

“God can work miracles. Let’s hope this is one of them,” Paglia said.

* * *

At a 10:40 a.m. press briefing on Tuesday, Hatfield said that the second 6-inch diameter hole had made it 396 feet down by 6:50 a.m. The third small probe hole that was being drilled had made it down 160 feet by 10:30 a.m., he said, noting that rescue teams had made it 10,200 feet into the mine.

“There are no material changes in the gas level at this point,” Hatfield said. “We believe that we were being overly conservative early on.”

The lost crew of men is located somewhere between the 11,000 and 13,000 feet range, he noted.

“It is the sole focus of everyone in the command center to get those men out safely… It continues to be our belief that the [gas detected in the mine shaft] is a remnant of the explosion… Morale is high. We all continue to push forward as hard as we can.

“The families are clinging to every hope of survival.”

A while later I noticed that one of the family members of the trapped miners was surrounded by a pack of reporters. I let them finish with him and clear out, then I asked him for a quick interview and a few other reporters tagged along to take notes on my interview for their stories.

Nick Helms, 25, actually smiled and stood tall as he answered my questions, just as I’d seen him do with the other reporters. He was gracious and kind and understanding as he talked about his father, Terry Helms, 50, the fire boss of the trapped crew.

“My dad’s a smart guy, he can build anything,” said Nick, a resident of Myrtle Beach, S.C. “He wouldn’t let me get into mining. He didn’t want me to bust my ass, and not be able to sleep.”

I told him I was sorry I had to pester him with questions.

“I understand, it’s your job and I respect that. And I appreciate that you respect my dad and his job,” he said.

Terry Helms had been a miner for 34 years, his son said. The Preston County family was tight-knit. When he heard the news, Nick said, he sped up from South Carolina, making it to the mine in 11 hours.

I asked Nick if he was religious, if he was a man of faith. I have faith, I believe, he said quietly.

There was a whole lot of preying by reporters, and praying by the hopeful, going on down at the mine. To many, prayer seemed the only hope left.

Late in the afternoon, around dinner, Gov. Manchin gave an impromptu press briefing to reporters standing in the middle of the road leading to Sago Baptist Church.

“We’re praying for that miracle, but odds are pretty much against us,” Gov. Manchin said.

A short time later, around 5:30 or 6 p.m., I learned from a contact that he had just overheard two family members of miners talking about how rescuers had found a body. I asked him who said it. He motioned slyly toward two men just twenty feet away from us who still were talking lowly together. The men were on the family and friends side of the police tape that state troopers had slung across the grass about thirty yards shy of the church.

* * *

Friday, 1/6/06,

-8:57 a.m.

I was moved by the farewell note written by Martin Toler, Jr., because it reminded me of my dad. Maybe it’s the stress, but more likely it’s due to the fact that I lost my dad from an accident nine years ago, after he fell and hit his head.

When I saw that Toler had written the phrase “on the other side” in his farewell note, it struck a chord. I was fairly sure that he was using a phrase from an old gospel song. I was wrong, because the song is a bluegrass standard that many country people and city folks know. It has the ring of an old gospel, which I believe is intended.

I looked up the phrase online, and I found the lyrics to the song "The Other Side of Life," by Alan O’Bryant:

Praise god I feel like singing
I'm on the other side of life now

All my days of sorrow
And tears for my loved ones
I wish I could tell them the door that I feel
Though my body is weary
My soul is uplifted
My sins are forgiven and my Jesus is real

Praise god I feel like singing
I'm on the other side of life now

Though my eyes are dim
I see heaven clearly
Though my voice grows feeble I sing just the same
In my heart there's a song
As I see the gates open
I'll sing forever my joyous refrain

Praise god I feel like singing
I'm on the other side of life now
Praise god I feel like singing
I'm on the other side of life now

My father was an evangelical Christian, a Bible-reading, Bible-quoting former country boy from Michigan. He liked to sing at the top of his lungs in the living-room, with his stereo blasting religious songs, country songs, all kinds of songs. He was a Gideon, one of those guys who passes out the little New Testament Bibles on college campuses.

He was a first-class holy roller, and he’d taken our family to many different churches while we twelve kids were growing up. Some of the churches that we visited were little white country churches where they sang those lovely old gospel songs. "The Other Side of Life" was his kind of tune.

Dad was a believer, always sure of his final destination, which he knew was through the Pearly Gates. I’m sure his spirit was belting out a song as he was heading there.

* * *

I was relieved from my post covering the rescue attempt just a few hours before the wrong good news came out. When I left the Sago Mine and headed home around 8 p.m. Tuesday, things looked bad for the trapped men. Family members and friends of the men looked more and more hopeless, and the faces of the mining executives also were telling a sad story. Time was against the trapped miners, and it seemed that it would be a miracle if any of the men came out alive. In the end, miraculously, one of them did come out alive.

By Tuesday night some reporters thought company officials believed the miners were dead, and that they were trying to rescue them so the families would feel the company had done everything it could. Do the damage control, lower the lawsuits, that sort of thing. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care to think about it anymore, because I was pretty sure that at least some of the miners were dead.

As I walked down muddy Sago Road to leave that sad place, I passed a camera crew by the side of the road that was getting ready to interview Nick Helms. The crews' lights shined brightly in Nick's face. He stood a little straighter, squared his shoulders, and smiled.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Waiting in Tallmansville

I was at the mine, covering the biggest story of this year.

I had a follow story or two as I worked a 24-hour shift. I am relieved that a co-worker took my place before the saddening conclusion of the rescue effort.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The nameless and the named

There’s a lot of talk about the avian flu these days, but many people don’t realize that a worldwide flu epidemic killed at least 20 million people in 1918-1919. The other day I had a story in the Post-Gazette about some nameless flu victims that were killed by the flu in 1918 in Butler County. They were buried in mass graves, but people still remember them.

While you’re driving down the highway during the holidays, you don’t expect the bridges above you to come falling down. Most people have heard about the recent collapse of the bridge onto I-70. The incident could have easily killed someone, since about 30,000 vehicles travel that stretch of I-70 daily.