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.