Mining Disasters

Mining disasters are different then many others in that they have a particular dramatic appeal. Before I go further let me say I am not talking about what the miners and their families experience – that is real human suffering and is not different from what anyone experiences when they lose loved ones. I’m talking about what the large, near real time audience created by the media experiences. A lot of what we in the audience experience is our own feelings about death and fear of being trapped but otherwise whole and alive. And, given the nature of mines, we get to experience these feelings over a long period of time with the prospect of both hope and the utter destruction of that hope equally possible. It is irresistible and unlike many other disasters the possibility of a successful rescue keeps us powerfully engaged for a long time.

I first ‘experienced’ a mining disaster via the media when I was 17. The collapse of the No 2 colliery at Springhill, Nova Scotia in 1958 . It was well reported too and got extensive coverage on TV by the CBC. It played out very differently from Sago as a series of dramatic and vicariously involving events. 75 miners got out quickly, but more were trapped and proved hard to locate. After about 5 days, just when all hope was fading, a group of 12 were found. But that wasn’t the end of it because they were trapped behind a 160 feet of fallen rock. It was a race against time with air supply and starvation major factors. Messages were tapped out and furious efforts made to dig the trapped miners out. Absolutely riveting. And grueling too. I spent every spare moment I could listening to the CBC radio broadcasting from the scene. I lost sleep and checked for the latest news in the middle of the night. They got them out. It felt like a miracle. It wasn’t, it was the work of brave and skillful men with shovels. It all took from Oct 23rd to November 1st – 10 days. Even Price Phillip was on the scene by Oct 30th. A good account of it is here. It is quite a story.

Many years later I met a man from Springhill who had witness the whole thing, although he had no close relatives involved. I immediately recognized that, for all my emotional involvement via the media, this man had a different experience that I felt bound to respect and recognize as less filtered than my own. I could see how my own experience was relatively self absorbed, and closer to the experience of a gripping documentary than of real life. We blur this difference easily – particularly where photography is involved. Seeing is believing in our culture, so part of us believes we saw the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. We temporarily suspend our critical faculties when we watch a dramatic movie, but we often think we have experienced reality when we see a documentary. Or a live news broadcast. We know better when we think about it, but emotionally we often don’t know better at all.

So I cannot blame the media who too quickly reported the good news or the company officials who evidently held back the bad news for three hours at Sago. It is all too human to hope. And really hard to give the information that will end all hope.

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