by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

All of our hearts are so full this morning with the sad news that the last four missing miners were found dead. In all, 29 miners have died from the explosion.  It is the worst coal mining accident in some 40 years. (The Finley No. 15 & 16 explosion near Hyden, Ky., with 38 dead, was in December 1970. That is so long ago…I was only 18 and don’t even remember anything in the news about it.  In the metal mining sector, the Sunshine silver mine fire claimed 91 lives as recently as 1972.)

Words can’t begin to express the grief.  Nor can words express the respect for family members who held on staunchly to hope and the rescuers who persisted in the face of daunting setbacks.

I feel grateful that at least, it seems none of the lost miners suffered. The explosion apparently was so devastating that their deaths must have been instantaneous.

Given the worst had already happened, it appears the emergency was handled systematically and professionally by the rescuers, including the mine agencies.  In contrast to some past incidents, no more deaths or injuries resulted in the rescue effort.  After some apparent confusion in the first few hours, authorities took control of information release and presented regular briefings on the emergency, with families kept informed ahead of the media — meeting one of the stipulations by Congress in the 2006 MINER Act. In this there is a small measure of gratitude.

There is also some comfort in the supportive response from the community — the relatives of the miners, the rescue teams who responded from other mines, the Red Cross, the neighbors who banded together against odious hate speech by the Westboro so-called-Baptist “church,” and many, many others.  There are hundreds of individual stories of extraordinary effort, dedication, kindness and heroism that could be told.  Many will never be be publicly known, but the gratitude to all is no less deep for all that.

May all the the men and women who gave their very best during the attempted rescue get some well deserved rest this week end.  In many cases, their work is just beginning.

Now that the worst is known, the miners’ families can begin to have some closure. Yet in another sense, the ordeal will continue.

I say this from experience as part of the MSHA investigation team in wake of the disastrous 1984 Wilberg fire in Utah and as part of the MSHA emergency response in several deadly accidents, especially the 1992 Southmountain Mine explosion in Virginia.

When the mine can be made safe enough, rescuers will have to perform the sad task of recovering the bodies of the miners. Mine workings also will have to be restored, ventilation controls rebuilt and debris cleared in order for investigators to examine the scene of the blasts. This can take weeks.

Then come multiple investigations that can be expected to last a year and more.  Federal and state fact-finding investigations, internal reviews of how regulators handled the mine before the explosion, likely Inspector General and General Accounting Office investigations, legislative inquiries both state and federal, possible public investigative hearings as at Sago in 2006, inquiries by other observers and the the media, and more. For the first time in memory a U.S. president is personally demanding answers in a mine disaster.  We do not yet know what elements led to the explosion. Among possible contributing causes: failure to follow existing regulations; weak regulations, or failure to enforce existing rules; poor mine planning; and communication failures within the company and/or MSHA.

The families and co-workers of the miners will want — and deserve — answers. I think it is fair to say that until now, most in the coal mining community thought that catastrophes on such a scale were a thing of the past.  We now must learn rapidly so that companies, miners and regulators get the information to prevent similar tragedies.  Families and co-workers will remain involved.  Authorities should continue to brief them regularly on the official investigation and answer their questions.  Some families members may well choose to engage themselves personally in the effort to prevent similar accidents.

Another aspect that is just beginning is, of course, the personal impact of the tragedy.  This has so many facets, from the practical level — such providing income for the families of the deceased miners ,and for surviving co-workers with the mine closed — into the emotional realm.

It is long since a small community like this has suffered such devastation in a mine accident, a complex array of interlocking losses and sorrows.  And the impact reaches — to a lesser extent — to every person who has been part of the effort and the tragedy.  Every rescuer and helper in the rescue effort.  Every employee of the company.  Every local employee of MSHA and the West Virginia OMSL. E very friend and neighbor. Every person who, at whatever remove, has some personal connection or some work to do.

Probably a number of good-hearted people who worked at the mine or were involved with the mine or the tragedy in some way are today with aching hearts asking themselves, “Was there anything I could or should have done different? Is it possible that this awful thing was my fault in some way?” Those most tortured by such thoughts often can be those who are least to blame in reality. We are a long way from answers. Little things can look big.  If anyone is in this position, please do not walk alone with it.  Talk to a friend, a minister or someone else you trust who may have perspective.

Another thing I’ve learned: the strong grief, after a time, often gives way to a different kind of sadness. It can mean physical weakness and shakiness, trouble in thinking clearly, trouble getting anything done, trouble sleeping, irritation over little things, a feeling that no one understands, pulling away from other people, and sometimes constant thoughts or flashbacks to the tragedy. When many people in a community are all grieving special losses, in a way that makes it harder. When there is still work to do — the followup to the catastrophe — it can seem extra difficult.

This is a normal, human reaction. But it can spark misunderstandings and anger between people who were close and supportive during the actual emergency.  Even family members.  If anyone struggles with this, I beg you to be extra kind to yourself and other survivors around you.  Give yourself plenty of time.  Also, if anyone out there knows someone in this situation, I beg you to show very special kindness and support.

If possible, I think it helps most to talk with someone you trust who has experience of loss, but is not personally grieving in this one. A minister, a counselor, or just a trusted friend.  Not person who tries to give answers.  Just a compassionate listener with life wisdom.

May all who have suffered loss in this catastrophe come in time to know peace.

Kathy Snyder worked at MSHA for 26 years in the office of public affairs.  She retired from her career position at the agency in 2004, and is the Washington, DC correspondent for Ellen’s Smith publication  Mine Safety and Health News