05 January 2006

Miscommunication

[This was written yesterday, but I didn't get it posted till now.]

I overslept this morning again—sleepiness is one of the annoying side effects of this otherwise amazing medication I’m on—and didn’t get up till my brother Greg, the aerobatic pilot, came through on his way to work. Had I heard about the miners in West Virginia, he asked, measuring oatmeal into a bowl for his breakfast. Well, I’d heard, all right, but from what I heard the prospects were not too bright. Trapped underground, carbon monoxide building up, and still missing—no, it didn’t look good for them this eleventh day of Christmas in the year 2006 of the Common Era.

“They’re still missing, the last I heard,” I said. “Why? Has something happened?”

“Well, kind of,” said Greg. “Last night, when I went to bed, they’d been found alive, all but one.” He put his bowl into the microwave, closed the door, started the oven. “And then this morning, as I’m driving in, I heard on NPR that only one of them was alive—the others had all been found dead.”

“Well—uh—how’d that happen?”

“Somebody told the families the miners had been found alive. And then the mining company sent some guy out about two hours later to tell them no, it had all been a mistake—there was only one of them found alive, and he was in critical condition.”

“That’s unfortunate,” I said, except that I used only one word, and that one unprintable. “What on earth did they think they were doing?” (or words to that effect). “Kind of makes you appreciate some of those airlines taking forever to release the facts till they got them right.”

In the TV room the set showed images of grief-stricken and angry friends and relatives. Somebody official, important, in charge, said a few words, urging us to remember the miracle of the one miner who survived. We switched over to the weather channel to help plan our days, and our conversation went on to other subjects.

After glancing at the news on the set I thought I had the hang of the story. Around midnight, it might begin, the bells started ringing at a small Baptist church in Tallmansville, West Virginia. They people were celebrating the joyous news that their prayers had been answered, that their loved ones had been found safe and sound, and even that they would soon be arriving at the church before being taken to the hospital. It would be like a second Christmas. Celebrations continued for another two to three hours, while hospitals prepared to receive patients and newspapers went to press. And then the unthinkable happened. The company sent a spokesman out to the church with the curt announcement that all but one of the miners was dead. It seemed there had been a slight miscommunication. Instead of all of them alive but one, it should have been all of them dead. But one.

That’s the sticking-point. What the hell were they thinking at that company—International Coal Group—in sending out news like that so hastily, without having confirmed it first? I suppose I couldn’t blame them in a way—the desire to be the bearer of good news is often overwhelming. But the company, damn it, should know better than—

Wait. Who exactly was it that told the relatives waiting at the church the false news? I worked my way through a clutch of nearly-identical internet stories without being able to pin it down. Somebody had made the announcement at the church, nobody seemed to know who. A man had come racing in with the news, saying the ambulances would stop by the church first so that the miners could have a few words with their families (surely that couldn’t be right). A “foreman” from the company had brought the news. A “foreman” had called somebody on his cell phone with the news.

More and more this was beginning to sound like one of those spontaneous rumors that pop up in crowds under stress; I could dimly recall reading about them a century or so ago in sociology class. They flare up like flash paper and move a crowd to do things that otherwise it might never dream of.

Ah, but what about the Governor? Didn’t he confirm it? Wasn’t that a second source to show the truth of the information?

Yeah, well, sort of. It seems that Mr. Manchin, the governor, got his story in the same way the rest of the crowd did, by word of mouth. The officials who were with him knew nothing of the situation. They decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth, and found that at the command center a celebration was going on. Confirmation enough, you might think. But how had the information come to command center? Again there was a blank. Apparently a message that the searchers had found the bodies and were checking their vital signs had somehow been misunderstood. It didn’t make sense, exactly, but still…

Miscommunication. Garbled in transmission. Noise is what they call it in information theory, that which interferes with communication. Editors have to deal with it all the time, the screw-ups that occur when information is transmitted, whether through time or through space. I wrote a chapter on it in one of my never-to-be-finished books, how whole documents have been assembled out of nothing more than noise. Donnelly’s solution to the (nonexistent) cipher in Shakespeare’s First Folio. Someone’s “translation” of the Troano Manuscript (one of the three documents that are all that is left of Mayan literature) that gave rise to the story of the lost continent of Mu. Miscommunication.

But still—what an odd mistake to make. A miscommunication that gave rise to celebrations at a church, at command center, and preparations at a local hospital.

Now, you have to understand, I didn’t spend my whole day on this. I mused idly while on breaks from other matters. I read casually. I watched fitfully. It was during a break for a sandwich I saw that ICG’s chief executive, Ben Hatfield, was about to make a statement to the press. I stayed around for it—and the story changed again. Some parts cleared up—others remained murky.

Okay, ignoring the sequence in which Mr. Hatfield gave it, the narrative begins with the rescuers down in the tunnels, making their way slowly like explorers on another planet, unable to breathe the poisonous atmosphere below. In this hellish environment somebody heard a sound—the sound of someone moaning. Investigation brought them to the twelve missing miners—one of them alive, the other eleven dead. And at this point comes the appalling miscommunication that led to the scene at the church—the noise in the signal, the grit in the gears.

It seems that they had a sort of code-word arrangement in effect between the rescue workers and the command center. The word “item,” for example, would be used instead of “body.” Apparently either the rescue worker who sent the news used the wrong code-word, or the person at the other end of the line of communications got confused as to which word meant what—at any rate, when the message that the rescue workers had found the twelve missing miners reached the command center, the word was that they had found twelve living miners. Miscommunication—with a vengeance.

I didn’t get from the report how many people there were at the center, but no less than three organizations were involved, and there must have been a dozen or more. ICG, quite correctly, had a ban on premature release of the news, precisely to prevent situations like this from happening, but it looks like one or more people—no doubt with the best of intentions—violated it. The false news jumped the barrier, the cell phones buzzed, and the church bells rang. Noise assumed the shape of news, and the spectre of vain hope stalked the land.

Meanwhile, back at command center, time passed, and people began to become uneasy. Where were the expected details of the condition of the miners? What was happening? After forty-five minutes had gone by, a new communication was received, and this one was not so good. Instead of twelve living miners rescued, there was one miner in critical condition. And eleven, I would assume, “items.”

Now of course at this point it was clear at command center that there was a miscommunication of some kind, but which was the error? Was it that only one had survived, or that all had survived? More time was lost while the situation was investigated, and outside the miners’ friends and families celebrated.

Of course we all know now how it came out, and in hindsight it’s easy to say what should have been done—but all they had to go on at command center were contradictory reports. And even when it was clear that it was the second report, that only one man had survived, they still didn’t know who he was. What do you say under the circumstances, and when do you say it? It seems to me that it would have been better to send some word as soon as the second contradictory message appeared, but then, I’m always in favor of keeping people in the loop, as the expression goes.

Quite late it seems that some effort was made to prepare the friends and families of the victims, though Ben Hatfield was rather vague on the point. Unnamed law-enforcement people were expected to take a more sobering report to the clergy at the church, who in turn would inform the people. Apparently this didn’t happen—more miscommunication? In any case, when Hatfield went down to the church to address the families of the victims, he seems to have thought that his only job was to give them the name of the survivor. Instead he found false hope still alive, and the celebrations still going on. It must have been an appalling moment.

Well, we all know what happened then—chaos, anger, panic attacks, fainting. One man had to be prevented from physically attacking the messenger. A pastor called for calm, and somebody shouted “What the hell did God ever do for us?” A woman who had been thanking God for her son’s survival switched to not blaming him for his death. Another threatened to sue ICG. And life went on.

There isn’t any moral to this story. There’s a certain irony, perhaps, in the miscommunication, if indeed the use of code-words intended to prevent unfounded rumors instead caused one. No doubt the company should have responded more quickly; false hope is a terrible phantom to conjure up. And of course we all should celebrate the survival of the “miracle miner,” as MSNBC insisted on calling him ad nauseam. But still, in the end, there doesn’t seem to be any point. It’s just, as Homer Simpson once said, a bunch of stuff that happened.

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