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Chapter Seven

Sunday, August 04, 2002

The media converges

By the time the super drill accident had occurred, media from around the nation had arrived in Somerset County to chronicle what had become an international drama.

But the reporting didn't start out that way.

Gov. Mark Schweiker does an interview with a television crew at the media area that appeared overnight in a shopping area about two miles from the area where the rescue was being staged. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

It really began with a reporter at the Somerset Daily American, 23-year-old Leona Kozuch. On her way out the door Wednesday, sometime after 10 p.m., Kozuch asked the copy desk if there was anything else to do.

"They passed me an e-mail from County Control, which is our 911," she said. "It was real brief: 'Nine miners injured in a mine near Quecreek.' I live right near there, so I said I'd stop by and see what was going on."

Two Pennsylvania State troopers guarded the entrance to the mine works as Kozuch pulled off the two-lane highway near her home.

There were no other cars nearby. Behind the policemen, the mine entrance was dark, with no apparent activity. The officers told her to wait for a press briefing at the nearby Christ Casebeer Lutheran Church, located directly over part of the Quecreek Mine.

No one else was there when she arrived.

"I waited for a while and then ran down to my parents' house," she said. "My mom told me that my uncle worked in that mine and that there had been an accident."

Kozuch called her uncle for details, phoned the news to her paper and returned to the church. For the second time in less than a year, a Somerset County newspaper reporter was first on the scene at one of the hottest stories in the world.

TV crews from Johnstown and Pittsburgh joined Kozuch and a few other print reporters for the 1 a.m. press conference at the church. The story was still a local phenomenon.

But by Thursday afternoon, the drama unfolding above and below ground had attracted the national press corps, and by Friday, TV satellite trucks were beaming the news to viewers as far away as Europe and Australia.

By the weekend, nearly 200 media members were on the site, including crews from CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel and from such newspapers as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Competition to break news was fierce. Police threatened to jail reporters who pushed too hard for access to the miners' families, sequestered in the Sipesville Volunteer fire hall.

Local print reporters sometimes felt cut out of the loop. After being bumped off a press corps bus heading to the rescue site to make room for an NBC crew, Kozuch complained so much "they brought the bus back just for me and my photographer."

THE DAMAGED BIT: Rescue crews retrieve the 1,500-pound super drill bit that broke while tunneling toward the miners. Sixteen hours were lost before digging resumed on the miners' escape chamber. In all, the rescue took 78 hours. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

"That's just a part of covering a big story," said the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat's Mike Faher. "The same thing happened after Flight 93. It's frustrating when you're trying to have a conversation and a TV crew interrupts for a sound bite."

TV reporters struggled to get the pronunciations right (locals call the nearby stream the KWEE-mahoning Creek, but call the work site the KEW-creek Mine).

The reporter with the most familiar face, Fox News' Geraldo Rivera, didn't arrive until 8 p.m. Friday. When he got there, he expected to be covering a tragedy.

"I got there at sort of the nadir, when they hadn't heard from the miners in a while. My first interview was with a local woman who was beginning to fray around the edges. She was harshly critical of [Gov. Mark Schweiker] and insisted on speaking to me. She told me she was the cousin of one of the miners and the family was getting very edgy and impatient."

Rivera, too, was growing impatient with the governor's guarded announcements to the press.

"The governor at that time seemed more of a cheerleader than a soothsayer," he said. "It was difficult to cover, instant history. You want to be the first to get it, but the consequences of not getting it right are much greater than the consequences of not getting it first."

The worldwide attention brought an instant response. Dozens of Web surfers discovered the Sipesville Fire Department's e-mail address and sent messages of support. After Larry Baughman, manager of the Summit Diner, was interviewed on Fox, he received calls from people around the world, most of whom asked to pray with him. Among them was a woman from Alabama, where 12 miners were killed last fall trying to rescue a fellow miner, who also died.

With the exception of the rescue workers frantically drilling an escape route, that's all anyone could do at that point -- pray, and wait.

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