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Updating families fell to mine owners, pastor says

A pastor at Sago Baptist Church did receive news that all but one miner died, but did not share it with the miners’ families before company officials finally broke the news, said the Rev. Mark Flynn, a Methodist pastor who spent many hours at the church with the families.

“It was very late in the process,” Flynn said Friday, adding that he had left at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday and heard the bad news on television at home. Had company officials given hourly updates, as they promised, they would have avoided the problem of families feeling they were misled for nearly three hours, Flynn added.

“They’re not guilty of misinformation,” Flynn said. “They promised hourly updates, and they didn’t deliver them.”

As family and pastors gathered at the church Monday in the early hours after the explosion, Linda Feola of the Red Cross called all the pastors into a room, Flynn said. Feola told them that someone had promised that if there were bad news, Feola would receive a call and tell the pastors, who would want to be in a position to comfort, Flynn said. “Never was there an understanding that the pastors should pass that on.”

A state trooper shared the news with one pastor that very bad news was coming, Flynn said, confirming an account that company CEO Ben Hatfield gave at a press conference.

That pastor then shared that news with some other pastors, and none of them passed it on to the families, said Flynn. “I think they were never asked to do it, and I don’t think it ever occurred to them.”

Flynn said he has frequently shared bad news with a family, but in this case the pastors had a lot of exhausted and emotional people in a small space. “If one person shared the news, a scream would have gone up and there would have been panic.”

Did he question the good news when it first arrived at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday? “I did,” Flynn said. “I think the governor did. I said to pastor friends I wanted to hear an official announcement.” In time, he stopped questioning, hugged people who were happy, and went home.

The company failed to communicate in the final hours of the tragedy and in the next few hours after the word came that the miners were dead, Flynn said. The family of the fire boss knew the first body recovered should be their loved one, but from 10 p.m. Tuesday to past noon the next day, company officials failed to confirm the identification they promised to swiftly make.

Families started arriving at 7 a.m. Wednesday at the Wesleyan College Chapel, expecting to view and identify their loved one’s bodies in the nearby grade school. Gov. Joe Manchin told Flynn, “We all knew that those bodies couldn’t come out of the mine before 10 a.m.” But the pastors and the families hadn’t known.

“There is a difference between chaplains and local pastors,” said the Rev. Ravi Isaiah, a United Methodist minister and chaplain at CAMC Memorial Hospital. Chaplains frequently give bad news to families, but usually accompanied by one or more medical experts and often a psychologist. “That way, we have the emotional, spiritual and medical issues covered.”

Local pastors may not have been to seminary, where spiritual leaders learn how to deliver bad news in sensitive situations, Isaiah said. Local pastors may worry about how what they say will affect their own church. And they may, based on their own belief systems, have varying ideas about the right thing to do.

Chaplains have all the logistical advantages that the pastors at Sago Baptist Church lacked, Isaiah said. “You need to be one-on-one at such times or at least bring the numbers down a lot. Otherwise, it becomes chaotic. It’s hard to keep your own emotions in check, which you have to, and not get caught up with everything.”

To contact staff writer Bob Schwarz, use e-mail or call 348-1249.


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