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Mining the deep, murky well of celebrity

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

The editors at People magazine are probably kicking themselves about now. In a business where timing is everything, the Aug. 5 issue managed to make it to newsstands without any reference to the happy outcome of the three-day mining accident in Somerset County that kept the nation spellbound.

People's cover story is devoted to what the editors modestly referred to as "Living Miracles." The usual archetypes are front and center: A 47-year-old bank executive whose parachute failed to open for her during a 14,500-foot fall into a mound of fire ants, a 46-year-old baseball coach who survived a line drive that smashed his skull into 18 pieces, and a toddler who survived a fiery crash in an SUV that killed her family.

There's even a heart-warming piece about a clean and sober Robert Downey Jr., though it's not an official part of the magazine's "miracle" package for reasons that escape me.

If only People's editors had had as much faith in a positive outcome to the mining disaster as Gov. Mark "Norman Vincent Peale" Schweiker during his marathon vigil at the site. If the editors had sat on their "miracle" cover story for a mere week, they would've gotten a bigger pop at the newsstand with the inclusion of the Quecreek Nine.

But there's little doubt that in the weeks to come, the miners will score more than their share of national magazine covers, including People. Barring a shocking infusion of imagination, you can bet somebody will recycle the magazine's "Living Miracles" headline to tell the story.

The only downside to this story is the inevitable overkill a happy ending always inspires. First, expect immediate short-term exploitation by the always superstitious lottery-playing public. You don't have to be Stephen Hawking to figure out what the hottest numbers on the street will be this week.

Nine will figure prominently in the betting, along with three for the number of days the miners were in the ground and "78" for the number of hours. Expect "245" to get heavy play because it corresponds with the time on Sunday morning the last of the miners emerged from the ground and "240" for the number of feet they were from the surface.

I was amused by Gov. Schweiker's sweet but naive insistence that the Quecreek Nine weren't "going to provide a lot of commentary" to the media because they're "humble people." We'll see what happens when the first six-figure book deal comes along.

Sure, they're plain-speaking folks, but it's going to take a lot more than being a lifelong "rugged individualist" to say no to an appearance on Leno. Don't be shocked if the miners show up en masse on Letterman to recite the Top 10 list before the end of the week. With Bruce Springsteen appearing on the show this Thursday and Friday, the miners would fit right in.

This isn't meant as criticism, believe me. If I were trapped in an underground air pocket because maps I thought were correct weren't, I'd think long and hard about other employment opportunities. Really, who would blame any of them for being allergic to mine shafts after three very long days in the ground?

My biggest prayer after the miners surfaced Sunday morning was that they not accept the first movie-of-the-week offer that came along. If these men are half as shrewd as I suspect they are, they'll hire a very discriminating agent to wade through the deluge of hackneyed scripts that will begin rolling in from Hollywood's dark, satanic mills like lumps of bituminous coal.

They should insist on an all-star cast with Nicholas Cage as the sensitive, emotional miner Harry Blaine Mayhugh. I connected with his gratitude and tragic sense of life immediately. With his penetrating eyes and his wife at his side, the goatee-wearing miner reminded me of an Appalachian Rudolph Valentino.

Still, our newly minted celebrities will have to tread carefully. Yesterday, a woman at the snack bar groused about the frequency of "breaking news" updates throughout the day. "I'm glad they're out of the ground," she said wearily, "but they're interrupting way too many [soap operas] to tell us the obvious."

Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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