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Manchin takes measured tone after mine explosion

NAOMA, W.Va. -- Gov. Joe Manchin four years ago delivered what seemed to be miraculous news: a dozen miners had survived an explosion at the Sago mine -- only to then have to tell devastated families that all but one were dead.

Those who watched the tragedy unfold on the national news were dumbfounded: How could the governor so carelessly lift spirits without knowing for certain the miners' fate?

As the worst U.S. mining disaster in two decades unfolds this week, Manchin has been a cautious and calm presence, vowing to communicate with families with compassion and frequently even if he doesn't have much new to tell them. The explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 25 and four others remain missing; rescuers have been laboring for the past two days to try to reach them while also battling poisonous gases that bottle up underground.

The shadow of the 2006 Sago mine disaster has hung over the explosion at Upper Big Branch. Manchin has kept a high profile, delivering regular briefings to the media, and updating families in person every two hours.

He's been measured in tone and in the news he delivers. The cautiousness is a change from Sago, but in some ways Manchin is playing the same role: comforter-in-chief to a state whose identity is so linked with coal that a statue of a miner graces the grounds of the Capitol.

At Sago, Manchin heard along with relatives the wildfire rumor that all but one of the 13 miners had survived, and then joined in their celebration and helped to relay the bogus information that only made the heartache worse when reality set in.

"It was the euphoria of the moment," Manchin recalled later. "The [church] bells were going off, everybody was hugging and kissing. We'd been together for two days, and to get news like this ... "

This time, miners' families have been largely sequestered from the media on the site, unlike at Sago, where the two groups mingled. Information comes from Manchin, or from one of the officials by his side, at frequent briefings.

Manchin has also changed. While people cling to the hope that their loved ones are among the four who haven't been found dead, the governor serving his second term has tempered that optimism with frank talk about the enormity of the blast.

"You're always hoping for that miracle," he said, his voice trailing off after adding, "but when you have an explosion of this magnitude ... "

His public gaffe is seared in the memories of people who live outside of West Virginia, but his constituents didn't hold it against him. Manchin-as-empathizer may be the image that lingers longest in the minds of West Virginians, who returned him to office in 2008 with the largest share of the vote by any gubernatorial candidate at least in modern times.

"Despite the terrible tragedy of mistaken information at Sago, in the end it was positive for Manchin because of his direct attempts to deal with it," said Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Sago families said in 2006 they didn't blame Manchin for sharing their mistaken jubilation, and John Groves, whose brother Jerry died at that mine, understands why the governor has taken a more measured tone this time.

"This brings everything back to if Sago just happened, all the anger and sadness all over again," Groves said.

For Manchin, mining tragedies are personal. In 1968, his uncle was among 77 miners killed in a blast at a mine in the governor's Farmington hometown.

"I've been on both sides of the table," he told The Associated Press. "I've been hanging on every word. I've been hanging on every minute waiting for news."

AP writer Tom Breen contributed to this report.

 


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