by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

One week after the Upper Big Branch explosion, apparently no confirmed listing yet exists of the 29 miners who lost their lives in the catastrophe.  A spokeswoman at Massey Energy told me this morning,

“Out of respect for the families, the company is not releasing names at this time.”

A state spokesperson also advised this morning that Office of Mine Safety & Licensing (OMSL) is not releasing names and suggested contacting the medical examiner’s (ME) office; an administrative person at the ME’s office did not immediately return a message.  No official fatality list has appeared on MSHA’s helpful single-source page to date, and an email to the MSHA press office about this has not been answered.

Journalists apparently have been left to piece the fatality list together by combing through obituaries and Facebook pages and by seeking out family members, neighbors and others in the community.  While I respect the wish of accident victims’ families for privacy, I find the apparent official secrecy at this stage somewhat troubling.  It is a week since the explosion and almost three days since family members, sadly, knew the worst.

Flags are flying at half staff today for the miners.  It is true that some of the miners’ bodies remained to be recovered as of this morning.  Yet some funerals have already taken place. Public officials are already talking about how to change the law in order to prevent similar events.  Yet it seems the miners who perished are still — officially — nameless

I can understand wishing to protect people from unwanted intrusions at a time of grief.  Yet I cannot help feeling that it must be equally if not more intrusive to have journalists fanning out through a local community trying to collect basic, factual information that authorities decline to provide.  Moreover, in recent disasters I believe that journalists on location generally respected requests not to contact certain families and not to bring cameras to funerals or to keep their presence very low key. 

It’s my understanding that police departments and the miltary generally consider identities to be public information once next of kin have been notified, or after a certain period — such as 24 hours — if relatives cannot be located.  We are all thoroughly accustomed to seeing this factual information in news reports of traffic accidents, fires, combat deaths, and natural disasters.  No disrespect is implied — just the opposite.

There seems no clear reason why a fatal accident on the job would be subject to more secrecy.  In past disasters MSHA typically waited for the mining company to release the names of deceased employees before officially confirming this information.  The origin of this practice was that the company was expected to take the lead in briefing family members and the news media about all aspects of the emergency. 

Since the 2006 MINER Act, however, Congress expects MSHA to take charge of information release.  I do not know, of course, what may be taking place behind the scenes, but I believe we have never in memory gone so long after a fatal mine accident without some official identification of the victim or victims.  This is, moreover, in strange contrast to the generally more open handling of information at Upper Big Branch, compared with Sago in 2006 and Crandall Canyon in 2007.  I believe it is now past time an official list of the dead was placed on public record.

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