Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Saturday Diary: Thank you, West Virginians
Saturday, 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.
Michael A. Fuoco is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1968).

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Monday, April 19, 2010

With all of the funerals over and the investigation beginning it is time for us to start the process of moving on. That is going to be so hard to do. When I hear about tragedies my heart always goes out to the people involved but how often do we think about the people left behind. Not the immediate family, we know what they are going through, it is horrible but the ones that have to keep on going. Our men have to go back to work, after losing 29 men that they worked with all the time, that they counted as brothers, while knowing that it could have just as easily been them. Most of the miners are being transferred to other mines and have started going through orientation and starting over at a new place. Some of them are being left there to either help shut the mines down or help get it started again, when that decision is made. For all of them though it is the loss of a family. Not only have they lost those who gave their lives that day but they have lost the whole family that they had there at Performance. It's a lot to give up, a lot to get over and I don't think most of them even know where to begin. We have a long road ahead of us but we are strong. They are strong. They are a special group of men. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I had to let go of him this morning. I'm pretty sure I'm going to vomit. Things like this sure change the way you look at life in general. There are a lot of things that just don't matter anymore.

That's the Facebook status that I just posted. On Monday the coal mines that my husband works in had an explosion. There aren't words that describe the feeling of seeing the smoke bellowing out of that mountain, watching the ambulances and then fire trucks and then news vans and then mine rescue buses barrel down the road and the feeling that things will never be the same again. Then finding out that so many of your husbands friends and co-workers are gone. At times it still just seems so unreal but then at times it feels all too real. I can't even try to imagine what the other families are going through because I can't allow my mind to go there. It could so easily have been my husband instead of theirs. I am so thankful to God that it wasn't my husband but that relief brings with it guilt. As wives we all know that our husbands are risking their lives when they go to work but we rely on the statistics to get us through. Statistically it is no more dangerous than driving down the road. When any tragedy hits this close though, all of the statistics go out the door because it is now personal experience, not statistics that you are relying on. So letting go of him this morning was very difficult. He isn't going to be working underground but that isn't comforting me much. I can only imagine how hard this day is going to be for him. He has been down there once already and went down and spent time with the families that are waiting but to be THERE all day, I just can't imagine. The only hope left is that they find someone still alive when they are able to go back in. Whether they do or not though, moving on with our lives is going to be difficult.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I need some peace. There seems to be no way of finding it lately. Between the horrible winter that we have had and all of the crazy things that go on in this thing that I call my life, there is no peace. Some days I just need a few minutes to myself to cry because most of the time that is what I feel like doing. I guess most Mothers feel the same things that I am feeling. Like a failure, like there isn't any way that I can be all of the things that I need to be, like I let everyone in this house down on a daily basis. These feelings have been overwhelming me lately with all of the things that are going on. I looked for a little support but as usual that was a mistake, he ended up throwing it right back in my face (I just wrote and deleted that sentence 3 times but remembered that is now what I'm here for, the release). I don't like to show that kind of weakness in front of my kids but if I can't find some quiet peace soon this dam is going to burst. 

Monday, March 15, 2010

Switching gears

I have set down and written posts quite a few times lately and then deleted them. I feel like I need to be witty and wise and most days I just don't have the energy for that. So I am dropping all pretext and am no longer even going to try. I'm going to write what is on my mind, what I am feeling, what we are going through - well you get the idea. It may just be a few lines and it may be more. I need a release and this is the only real way to get it(at least for me). I have to quit worrying about perfection and just allow myself to be. I am going to try to write something everyday. Where ever I have to do it from, what ever it takes and even if it is incoherent to most people.