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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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In his initial press conferences, Poundstone cautioned that it would take time to learn what had happened, and he publicly thanked everyone who was assisting, including the news media for their cooperation in keeping the public informed. 36 However, rather than using one designated spokesperson, numerous people spoke on behalf of the company in the early hours and days following the disaster. For example, the day after the blast, a third spokesperson was identified in the local newspaper, The West Virginian, as the treasurer of Mountaineer Coal Co., the subsidiary of CONSOL that operated the No. 9, who cautioned it could “take days before any new developments could be accomplished.” 37 That day’s (Nov. 21) New York Times quoted James McCartney, Consol’s “personnel and public relations director,” as saying that the official message had become “days or weeks” before rescue workers could enter the mine. The New York Times also reported that officials were pessimistic of survivors, as only two ventilating fans, which provided fresh air to the mine, were still working. When the mine exploded it destroyed two fans that ventilated the west side of the mine where the trapped men were located. Of the two fans still operating, one ventilated the east side of the mine, which was not disturbed by the explosions; the other was a temporary fan set up after the disaster in a new shaft that was under construction when the mine blew up. Air entering the mine through the two damaged fanshafts was feeding the fires and making any rescue impossible. The mine exploded at least another 20 times before it was permanently sealed.

The local newspaper reported two more explosions at the No. 9 the day after the initial blast, and a report from one of the state’s Capital-city newspapers noted that safety violations had been reported at the No. 9 previously, which if left unchecked, could have caused the explosions; no company official is quoted in response. 38 Yet, despite the grim conditions, a Boston newspaper quoted Poundstone, described by one reporter as a stocky, 45-year-old engineer, as saying they would not give up hope, but that rescue efforts could not begin until it was certain the mine was safe to enter. The remark was in stark contrast to the first local newspaper report of the explosion, in which a West Virginia Department of Mines field inspector 34 James A. Haught, “The Farmington Mine Disaster, 1968,” Charleston Gazette, Nov. 21, 1969, in West Virginia: Documents in the History of a Rural-Industrial State, p. 306.

35 Photo cutline, “The Long Mine Vigil in Silhouette,” The West Virginian, Nov. 21, 1968, p. 1.

36 George Grago, “Efforts to Rescue 78 Miners At Mannington Halted by Fire,” The DominionNews, Nov. 21, 1968, p. 1.

37 “Rescue Work Expected to Be Slow, Tedious,” The West Virginian,Nov. 20, 1968, p. 1.

38 “Daily Mail Reports Safety Violations,” The West Virginian, Nov. 22, 1968, p. 1.

783 was quoted as saying, “There’s not a chance in the world of getting them out.” 39 It also contrasted sharply with what The New York Times reporter Ben A. Franklin noted in early coverage for that paper: “Privately, the officials said the miners’ chance of surviving this long were ‘very slim.’ ‘But we will not give up hope as long as any chance exists,’ a company executive said. 40 In his press briefings, Poundstone also noted the spread of the fire and the lethal carbon monoxide gas in the mine, but said that ventilation fans were still running in case any of the men were alive. He said it was “conceivable” that some of the men may have barricaded themselves in areas free of fire and smoke, but he was not confident. 41 Worse still, a New York Daily News article the day before quoted the company’s public relations director as saying that the oxygen lifeline to the men had been cut off because the oxygen was feeding the fire. 42 Therefore, while it was known the men had no oxygen, the language of continued hope and rescue intent was still being used.

In the Boston article, the president of the United Mine Workers of America labor union, Anthony Boyle, praised the company as being one of the better in terms of safety, 43 and a local West Virginia newspaper carried the page 1 headline “Boyle Has Praise For Consol Safety.” 44 However, federal Interior Secretary Stewart Udall was quoted in stories from Washington that he blamed the unions as well as the coal mining industry and government for not doing enough to prevent such disasters. 45 Two days after the blast, The New York Times reported that “Consol PR man John Roberts,” a consultant who’d been hired by the company, dismissed a list of the mine’s safety violations, calling them “similar to the safety deficiencies frequently found in family automobiles upon state inspections.” 46 The morning following the disaster, Poundstone and other officials, including Consol’s president, John Corcoran, union leaders, and federal Bureau of Mines officials, gathered for the 10 a.m. press conference and answered questions “in the improvised news room at the rear of the … store.” 47 The senior vice president of Continental Oil Co., which owned Consol, flew in from Chicago and gathered with other company officials, including its general counsel, at the nearby local corporate headquarters. Some officials gathered with families at a small nearby church where a short prayer service was held, and the company distributed its paychecks, as usual, for 39 “Mine Rescuers Find Nothing: Drill Through,” The Charleston Gazette, Nov. 25, 1968, p. 4.

40 Ben A. Franklin “Hope Is Dim for 78 Caught in Mine Fire,” New York Times, Nov. 22, 1968, p. 1.

41 Robert C. Welling, “Hopes, Prayers Help Farmington Families,” u.d.

42 William Federici, “Fire and Fear of New Blasts Halt Rescue Tries; Hopes Fade,” Daily News, Nov. 21, 1968, p. 3.

43 United Press International, “Raging Fires Spread Deadly Gas: 78 Miners Believed Dead,”

–  –  –

the first 10 days of November to men who had survived and to the families of those trapped below. 48 At one point during the first days, after an hour of questions and answers with the media, the company agreed to hold more frequent briefings and said that “officials competent to answer technical questions would be present to do so.” 49 Meanwhile, The New York Times continued to cover the story and noted that for the first time, Poundstone’s news conference, still being conducted in the nearby store, was carried over a public address system, so the families of the missing men, could hear what was being said. During the hour-long news conference, Poundstone asserted the mine, although “moderately gassy” was a “safe mine.” 50 Bureau of Mines officials, however, disagreed, stating that the gas levels in the mine had always been high.

Drills were brought in to take air samples and to try to determine if men were still alive three days after the blast, but some of the relatives claimed more drills were needed. They remained hopeful, as 21 men had emerged alive from the mine after the initial explosion; eight, four hours after the initial blast. However, another Consol vice president, Peter Ferretti, noted as well the air samples showing lethal carbon monoxide and dangerous methane levels in the area where the men had been trained to go in case of disaster. 51A federal official acknowledged “we are doing all we can.” The next day—now three days following the initial explosion—John Corcoran, Consol president, made the promise to relatives that “as long as there is any hope at all for the life of any man in that mine, I will not give authority” to seal it. 52 This key message was repeated again and again: that no plans were then being made to seal the mine. The same day, the local newspaper reported that a microphone had been lowered into the mine but nothing was heard. “If there was anyone down there,” yet another “Consol official” said, “you would hear them.” 53 The same day, the New York Knickerbocker News ran an article in which another coal company official, Alder Spotte, confirmed that “an explosion mixture of methane gas and coal dust” existed in the mine, which was creating subsequent explosions. Yet, he also said, “We still have hope we can get a rescue team in there without endangering their lives.” And “I don’t think much else can be done. We are open to suggestions. We have received letters and telegrams from many people, including scientists and visionaries. We are open to any suggestions and will evaluate all of them.” 54 Another New York paper, the Albany Times-Union, reported that teams entered the smoldering mine, and the Consol president, John Corcoran, reported, “There was clear air in there. We must evaluate and see what else can be done.” He reported that he still has the “ray of hope that these men will be found alive.” 55 In addition, he noted that that concrete stoppings, placed strategically in coal mines to control air flow direction, were in place and that was “a 48 William Federici, “Their Men Gone, Their Hope Too,” Daily News, Nov. 22, 1968, p. C5.

49 Bill Evans, “More Briefings Are Scheduled After Flareup,” n.d.

50 Ben A. Franklin, “New Explosions Rock Mine Where 78 Are Trapped,” New York Times,

–  –  –

good sign.” 56 It seemed as if he were wishing it were so. But, again, conflicting information was reported the following day in a West Virginia newspaper. It reported that Corcoran made the point at his afternoon news conference that “accumulated evidence indicates that fresh air from the main shaft is not getting back to where the trapped men may be.” He went on to say “We know the hopes are slim. Let’s face it. The question now is how much longer do we go before the judgment has to be made that based on all the evidence accumulated, that the very best job that can be done has been done. We’re not quite there yet.” 57 It seemed a distinct clue that a methodical attempt would be made to demonstrate Consol’s sincere effort and humanity, and that after the logical progression had been completed, it would be time to forego the operation and seal off the mine, extinguishing both the families’ hopes and the mine’s smoldering fires.

The company was still holding news conferences four days into the tragedy, as a UPI story noted that “some relatives of the trapped men ‘crashed’ a news briefing” conducted by Poundstone. 58 However, no additional details are provided in that particular story. But the New York Times said that relatives shouted out that the mining company was not pressing rescue efforts aggressively enough, and that “one company PR spokesman told reporters this assertion was ‘not true.’ Another discounted the allegation as the reaction of ‘disgruntled people,’” and Poundstone walked out of the room without comment. When pressed, he simply said, “There’s a limit to what we can do. There are other factors,” but he refused to elaborate. 59 One paper reported his departure by saying Poundstone had been near tears after being questioned aggressively by relatives before walking out; however, he later apologized and remained for the duration of a 2-1/2-hour session that evening. 60 The next day, another explosion occurred at the No. 9 mine.

More than a week after the blast, the local Fairmont Times reporter wrote that Corcoran “continued as chief spokesman for the panel directing the operations, including representatives of the company, the U.S. Bureau of Mine and the United Mine Workers of America. Although the Pittsburgh-based executive tried hard to be reassuring to the families of the trapped men...

it was becoming increasingly obvious that the last shred of hope … had all but vanished from the group....” 61 From the earliest hours of the disaster through its 10-day aftermath, multiple persons were speaking on behalf of the company and coal mining industry, and multiple mixed messages were being released and reported. These messages included the number of men trapped inside the mine, the men’s believed fate, the company’s actions in response to the fire, and Consol and the union’s safety records.

56 Associated Press, “Rescue Workers Explore Mine But Find No Trace of 78 Men,” New York Times, p. 41.

57 Peggy Edwards, “Fresh Air Said Not Circulating Inside Mine,” West Virginian, pp. 1-2.

58 UPI, “Workers Drill Into Fire-Swept Miners’ Tomb,” Times Union,” Nov. 24, 1968.

59 Ben A. Franklin, “Miners’ Relatives Urge Greater Efforts to Save 78, New York Times, Nov.

24, 1968.

60 Associated Press, “Rescuers Use Drills In Attempt To Find 78 Miners,” Beckley Post Herald,

–  –  –

Ten days after the initial explosion, the mine was sealed with the 78 bodies inside.

According to newspaper reports, the families had been called by the company and asked to gather at the nearby James Fork United Methodist Church. About 200 showed up in the church, which holds half that number. Consol’s president “walked slowly down the aisle, turned at the altar and spoke: ‘When I first came here a few days ago I made a promise that when the time came I would be with you. That time has come now.” He told them that “every human effort to save the men had been made,” and that he could no longer jeopardize others’ lives. He said the only alternative now was to seal the mine. The church’s pastor then rose to say a prayer. Some reported they believed the company still had not done enough; the paper detailed the various steps the company had taken since the initial explosion: air samples, listening devices, rescue teams. It was reported that as relatives left the church, Consol workers could be seen in the distance, already sealing the mine. 62 Consol’s Response Reviewed. As noted above, when viewed through modern-day best practice, the company made a number of crisis communication mistakes. The multiple spokespersons, mixed key messages that stirred doubt about corporate sincerity, and walking out of a press conference in which emotions ran high are a few. However, it also did some things well. As noted previously, it communicated early and often, and was responsive to requests for more technical experts to answer questions of media and family. Its highest-ranking officials from both Consol and its parent company were on site, answered questions, and showed compassion for the families in their words and by attending the church service in the community.

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