Photojournalist Todd Maisel & The Sago Coal Mine Disaster
By Todd Maisel
Staff photographer, New York Daily News
SAGO, WV – Photojournalists were mired in mud, braved chilling rain, and faced many belligerent families awaiting word on the rescue of 13 men trapped in a two-mile-deep West Virginia coal mine.
The nearly 40-hour vigil that began January 2 was later eclipsed by miscommunication. Families mistakenly celebrated the survival of 12 of the miners when only one was still alive.
The jubilation was photographed at the final deadline for almost every major daily newspaper in the country. When the mistake was revealed, anger and even deeper sorrow consumed the hundreds who were waiting for news on the fate of loved ones.
It is rare that unverified facts in a big story cause newspapers around the country to print inaccurate information with our photos dominating almost every front page. Church bells tolled just before midnight on Tuesday, January 3, bringing members of this Bible-belt community to embrace each other and “praise the Lord.” It gave photographers a rare view of the Sago Baptist Church where miner families had sought refuge away from the lenses. Like Jesus who spent 40 days of uncertainty in the desert, the Sago community faced its 40 hours of anguish, with a brief respite before learning that only one man miraculously had survived, with an air-pack that should have lasted only an hour.
The inaccurate report about the miners added to the already difficult task of photographing the families of these men in this sleepy, deeply private, Appalachian community.
It made a draining story more stressful and harkened back to the days of 9/11 when families awaited the rescue and then recovery of their family and friends, from the rubble of the World Trade Center terror attack of 2001. Hundreds of bodies were never found.
From the moment photographers arrived after long drives in heavy thunderstorms that allegedly sparked the original explosion in the Sago mine, we were enveloped by bone chilling dampness. This moisture created slogging mud everywhere. Conditions worsened with poor visibility (preventing use of helicopters for aerial photos), atrocious lighting conditions, prickly state troopers, and bossy local cops and firefighters.
Church leaders created a sanctuary from the media hordes, with the pastor saying, “You are welcome to join us for food and drink, but no photos in or on our property.”
Nearly all photographers complied with the request until the fallacious news caused a rush to get as close as possible to the celebrations. Prior to that moment, intrepid mining families who didn’t mind the camera lights spilled their pain at the media encampment where some journalists encircled a small campfire to keep warm. So the pressure mounted for any positive info, perhaps fueling the chain of events that led unidentified rescuers to leak word that the miners were alive.
The ongoing vigil by the coal miner families made it impossible for any media outlet to leave the site unmanned. Some photographers slept in their cramped vehicles and spent more than 40 hours straight working on the story. Luckily, local businesses and the Red Cross kept a steady stream of food and provisions coming into the media encampment and the church. But with patience fraying and a rapidly shrinking area for press to travel, shooters were looking for any chance to make a picture, causing some camouflage-clothed locals to shout threats or throw icy stares. Those glares became nastier as the hours wore on, the news became increasingly grim, and the media masses grew.
Monday to Wednesday vigil.
I grabbed the first New York to Pittsburgh flight as soon as it became clear to editors that the mining accident would be an ongoing story. I soon met Anderson Cooper of CNN with his producers and film crew. Also on board were members of CBS and ABC.
There was little to go on at that point, with one CNN producer scanning sketchy wire reports that indicated that this job would not be over soon.
Once in Pennsylvania, the drive in an SUV to West Virginia took more than two hours in violent thunderstorms. I arrived at 8 p.m. with my reporter Derek Rose to find that access to the mine was closed and only a few of the families were within media reach. Family members were mostly kept sequestered at Sago Baptist Church, down a gravel road and off-limits to our cameras.
Few photographers were yet on the scene, and many media operations were still grappling with whether to commit their resources.
With deadlines approaching, photographers, who were struggling to keep equipment dry, had to take what they could get and then leave to transmit by driving eight-miles into Buckhannon, WV, where several sites had Wi-Fi access. But leaving for any reason made many photographers uneasy, as it appeared that rescue or news updates could occur at any moment without warning.
Press conferences were held every few hours inside the cramped company headquarters about a mile from the mine site. The coal mine was defended by a well-guarded bridge, the rapids of the Buckhannon River to the west, steep hills and thick woods to the east. The nearest approaches were at least a mile away. The company provided a pool opportunity for AP, Reuters, and EPA, eliminating the need to find a better but very difficult vantage point. Climbing a 500-foot hill next to the site was of little use as trees obscured any practical view.
It was clear that photographers, who didn’t want to miss anything, would have to sleep in their vehicles and awake for the 2 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. press conferences held by mine executives.
At 7 a.m. the next morning, it was quiet, so I walked up to the church to get information. Inside the church, vice president of CGI Gene Kitts from the mining company prepared the crowd for the worst. “Carbon monoxide levels are way too high at 1700 parts per million,” he told the incredulous crowd. “There has been no sign of life.” Families poured out of the church and a few entered the media encampment and poured out their souls. Martha Rial, staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said she recalled hearing a woman screaming after that briefing.
“There was barely any light in the sky when the mood intensified from optimism to despair,” she said. “The (Terry) Helms family were comforting each other after they had spent whole nights by the road.” People were hoping for another Quecreek, PA, turnout, where they rescued those miners.
There were several photo ops during the day, including some who trekked to the opposite side of the river to photograph drilling operations to insert cameras and to test for explosive gases further down the mine. Governor Joe Manchin held his own presser at the media encampment, taking moments to hug two family members. He began presiding over all briefings.
When it appeared that there would be only bad news in the next few hours, some media sought to get some rest or send photos. One television network (which I won’t name) took the lull as a time to give cash bribes to families to embargo family photos. The lull, however, would not last: the church bells began to ring at 11:50 p.m.
Family members were screaming “Hallelujah” and singing praises of Jesus. At the church, photographers scrambled to make photos of hugging and crying. Some photographers, including myself, cried too. The emotions had built to a crescendo and prior rules went out the window.
At one point, I was trying to make photos at the top of the steps of the church when a man, who later bragged that he was the Red Cross “bulldog,” kicked me down the hill, causing me to bruise my ribs and end up in the mud. I got up after a few seconds and continued shooting.
Since the deadline was less than an hour away, I drove into town to transmit. My desk was elated to receive photos on time.
When I tried to return to the encampment, West Virginia state troopers had shut down traffic, allowing only emergency vehicles to enter. At that moment, an ambulance, escorted by a police car, raced from the site. I chased the ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Buckhannon, where police attempted to block access, but I still got through to the emergency room. Unfortunately, police at the emergency room forced me to retreat and kept other arriving photographers at bay.
Since I was not going to easily return to the Sago site, I stayed for a press conference with attending surgeon, Dr. Susan Long. She too wondered about the rest of the miners. It wasn’t until after the press conference at about 2:30 a.m. that I heard on the radio that the other miners perished.
Realizing that the main road was still blocked, I used back roads to work my way to the mine. Randy Snyder, photographer for The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, WV, said he and three other photographers also went into town to transmit, parked their cars at the roadblock, and then walked more than two miles on pitch-black roads to return. When they arrived, they ran into some irate families.
“We had a sense that what was said at the church, we understood it to be the truth (about the miners being alive), so we shot those images,” Snyder said. “But
I started having questions when they started pushing us back down from church and there was a changing attitude a bit. But there was an opinion that the miners would go to church.”
Annie O’Neill, a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was in her hotel when she heard news that the miners were alive. She too had to walk from the roadblock.
“When I got there my colleague John Heller was there and he told me the families were very belligerent and I didn’t understand because they had received good news,” she said. “I felt like something wasn’t right because if these people think that they are just going to walk out and have a meal in the church with their family – it just didn’t make sense. And then I heard someone screaming a long line of profanities at a camera person and a woman pushed him away. Then my editor called me and said, ‘Did you hear that only one miner is alive?’”
Brendan Smialowski, who was covering this story for European Pressphoto Agency, said he went to send photos after the first miner was reported dead and found himself out of position when the jubilation started.
“My desk asked for pictures so I left shortly after the governor gave a briefing and it turned out to be wrong,” Smialowski recalled. “I went to the hotel and it is a good thing because I heard the breaking news with Anderson Cooper so I raced back to the mine just in time to pass just before police put up the road block – it looked like it was a shift change. Most the emotion was after the fact.”
But he too suspected something was wrong because he also noticed a lot of ambulances going to the mine – and only one coming out.
“I knew the men would be in different states of health, but something in my mind told me that they wouldn’t be walking out cheering,” Smialowski said. “But then we saw state troopers showing up in greater numbers and rumors were going around that something was terribly wrong. I was able to drive down muddy, rock-laden roads back over the bridge that separated the mine from the main road.”
Photographers milled about, waiting for remaining family members to cross their paths. The church was again blocked, this time by an army of state troopers. Many family members wouldn’t talk and filed past with blank stares. Others attempted to walk around the media. Most were still shocked and angry over the revelations that only one man had survived.
The day after our longest night, the sun finally peered through the clouds. It didn’t help though, as most of the families had gone home, where some threatened news media who came too close. A morgue had been set up in town and was ringed by police and firefighters who threatened any media with arrest or a “halogen to the head” for those who lingered about. The neighboring Wesleyan College, normally easy access for the public, was shut down to media, and those who entered were threatened with arrest for trespass.
Most media were now focused on the lone survivor, Randal McCloy, and his family. They were available at times, as they had been throughout the ordeal.
Members of the Sago Baptist Church held a candlelight vigil that evening, capping off a terrible time for the community. Some members of the church leadership attempted to keep photographers far back from the ceremony. But on this night, there were even more photographers and cameramen than had been there in all the previous days, so leaders eventually relented and left us alone.
The wakes and funerals turned out to be very difficult also, with police ringing the perimeters of those sites and keeping media back hundreds of feet away. A few of the funerals allowed pool photographers, and some shooters managed to get photos at cemeteries.
Debbie Egan-Chin, a staff photographer for the New York Daily News who was my relief from the assignment, said she was threatened numerous times with arrest, even though she and other photographers were far away from the funeral processions. In one instance, sheriff’s deputies threatened to arrest anyone taking photos of the casket being removed.
Even odder, she said she and a reporter were detained for 45 minutes at one point. Their press identification and drivers licenses were held by state troopers. Troopers suspected them of being part of a hate group that threatened, on a hate-group Web site out of Kansas, to disrupt funerals because they believed the miners to be gay.
“They thought we were part of a hate group because we were taking pictures of people at the wake for David Lewis,” said Egan-Chin. “We both had identification and we were doing our jobs. When he told me what they were looking for, I said, ‘Are you insane?’”
While some photographers were able to get limited access and in some cases pool positions, it was clear that we were no longer welcome. Smialowski said he went to one funeral briefly where there was no access, but then hooked up with Associated Press photographer Haraz N. Ghanbari, who had befriended the brother of another miner. They were given pool positions in the church.
“Once they realized we weren’t there to ruin their day, they warmed up to us,” Smialowski said. “But in the end, we were like fish out of water and while most people were still accommodating and the kindness was still there, it felt more alien after that and we didn’t get a good vibe any more.”
At the funeral for Terry Helms – the first to be found dead, but the last to be buried – even his family asked media to stay away. There were no real angles to shoot from the street.
Could misinformation have been avoided?
The real question comes down to whether there was anything photographers could have done to prevent the mistake in the papers. Listening to Rush Limbaugh (on one of the few audible radio stations in Sago) criticize the liberal media establishment over the error, specifically Anderson Cooper on CNN, made me recall Geraldo Rivera’s reporting on conservative Fox. He was crying while pushing through fellow journalists to get his interviews.
This was obviously not the work of gullible media, but of journalists pushed to their limits and everyone wanting the miners to be alive. It didn’t help that Governor Manchin was part of the jubilation at that midnight hour.
The Dispatch’s Snyder said he photographed a mine accident in Kentucky days later, and once again misinformation was given to the media.
“The irony is we again had a mine thing in Kentucky, almost the same thing happened there and it was grievous for the family,” Snyder said of the Pikeville, KY, mine roof collapse on Tuesday, January 10. “It came out that the miner was dead, and then it was rescinded in a press release saying he was ‘alive.’ The confusion occurred because the brother and sister of the dead miner didn’t want the parents to know before they spoke to them. But in that flip-flop for the family, it caused great confusion and more pain.”
Newspapers that were able to change their front pages, even at that late hour, deserve high praise for the effort, including my own newspaper, the New York Daily News. Unfortunately, some papers are not staffed with such late night editorial operations and could not make the change in time.
One can only report and photograph what happens. If there is any lesson, it has to be that sources need to be ascertained to evaluate the credibility of the information. As photographers though, we can only photograph what is there and hope that our reporters are asking the right questions of the right people.
Todd Maisel is a staff photographer for the New York Daily News and is NPPA Region 2 associate director. He can be reached at [email protected].