Notebook: The Tallmansville Disaster

CBS News correspondent Bob Orr spent several days covering the West Virginia mine tragedy and filed this Reporter's Notebook on the experience.

I will never forget the anguished faces. They seemed to float out of the darkness down a muddy road of despair. There was a weathered old man who shuffled along kicking stones out of his way as if somehow they were causing his pain. A man and a woman wrapped their arms tightly around each other, desperately trying to fend off the hurt.

And then I saw the young mother. She was a 20-something whose tears fell next to those of the toddlers she held — one by each hand. She seemed brave to me, but she also looked so vulnerable and now so alone.

It was just about three o'clock Wednesday morning when we heard the wails coming from the church where coal families had huddled in a two-day vigil. And that's exactly what they were — wails of grief so cutting, so shrill that they needed no explanation. Eleven miners were dead. These were the same 11 who, along with a buddy, were ALIVE just three hours before. At least that's what the families were told. That's what we were told too.

In hindsight, all of us covering the tragedy probably should have been more skeptical of the news because it didn't really add up. Throughout the day Tuesday, the prospects for the miners trapped inside Sago Mine Number One had grown increasingly grim. There were lethal levels of carbon monoxide in the mine, and one miner had already been found dead. We knew that the miners only had enough emergency air to keep them breathing for an hour or so. And it had been 41 hours. Mining officials did hold out what they called "a glimmer of hope," noting the car in which the miners had been riding was not damaged by the explosion, and it seemed the men may have fled to a safe place with breathable air.

Now, reporters work all the time with sources and in this case there seemed to be plenty of reliable ones. Numerous families told us they had heard from numerous mine supervisors on the inside that "all 12 were alive." West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who I count as a friend, had heard the same thing. And while there was no press conference confirming the good news, no one from the mine's operator, the International Coal Group, did anything to dampen the celebration of the midnight miracle. Mine officials told us later they were so uncertain of the facts that they didn't want to say anything until everything was nailed down.

That took more than two hours.

During that time, the families who had braced themselves for tragedy sang hymns, hugged, cried, and offered prayers of thanksgiving. More than one emerged from the church to say, "See, miracles do happen." We all wanted so desperately to believe it.

I am sure nobody lied. I believe the coal company, the governor, and the press all had the best intentions. That just wasn't enough. As one old timer explained, the problem was the "glimmer of hope" — when people are so desperate, he said, "Any flicker causes them to jump in with both feet." We all jumped and hit a bottom we never knew existed.

I've covered coal crises before. So as this one unfolded a lot of people pressed me for my prediction of the outcome, and I warned repeatedly that we should prepare for the worst. I was right, but I really didn't understand what the worst was.

I've seen too many bad things as a reporter; I've covered September 11th, 14 plane crashes, a dozen hurricanes and countless tornadoes. My friends tease me that my broadcasting career can be summed up as "flaming debris."

I've seen stories with more destruction, more deaths, and a greater worldwide impact. But, in 33 years I have never watched anything more personally disturbing or sadder than the events which unfolded early Wednesday morning in Tallmansville, W.Va. I was born in West Virginia and I wondered for a moment if perhaps I was making too much of this. But, I don't think so.