What would any of us do in Richard Stickler's place? You may remember Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, as the unintentional straight man to Crandall Canyon Mine co-owner Bob Murray during the multiple briefings the two men gave to the press this summer.
Every night, we tuned in hoping beyond hope that the six trapped miners had been rescued. But we also wanted to see what the bombastic Murray might say next and to hear Stickler's "just-the-facts-ma'am" report. Not since Oscar Madison and Felix Unger in "The Odd Couple" have we seen two men so different in their approach.
Last week, Stickler spent about an hour with our editorial board. He struck me as an earnest man. He came out of retirement to serve as head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Like Murray, he had worked in underground coal mines, progressing up the company ladder to mine manager, then heading the agency that regulates Pennsylvania's mining industry. Stickler made a point of explaining that he's never been what one might call a "coal boss." For the latter part of his career, Stickler has been the regulator the agency some mining companies might consider the thorn in their side.
In our discussions, Stickler pulled back the curtain on some of the private interactions between the miners' families, MSHA and Murray during the ordeal. Initially, there was some friction between Murray and the families. Some family members, overcome with worry and exhaustion, lashed out at Murray. Murray lashed back. Stickler recalled, "I said 'Bob, that's unacceptable. You can't be responding to the families that way."'
In time, a greater trust developed as MSHA officials met with family members two to three times a day, for one- to three-hour stretches at a time. "That was very, very stressful. For 14 days we prayed together and we cried together."
And this came on top of the agency attempting to develop a rescue plan for the six trapped (and now presumed dead) miners, assess the conditions of the mine and address a second event in the mine, which killed three rescuers and injured six others.
In fairness, Murray was involved every step of the way. In a letter to the editor by Sandra Szopa, a translator hired by UtahAmerican Energy to assist Spanish-speaking families during the ordeal, Szopa noted the strong support to employees offered by the company and Murray. "Generally, you will never see the executives of a company once the 'event' has occurred. Mr. Robert Murray was there for three weeks and two days. He never left."
Rarely do we get a glimpse behind the scenes when such a tragedy occurs. Generally speaking, families are segregated from the news media. Part of the reason is to protect their privacy. And it likely helps to have a single spokesman do the talking. But there were occasions when the frustration boiled over and disgruntled Crandall Canyon Mine family members began to decry how they had been treated by Murray or to wonder aloud whether every possible means to reach the trapped miners had been exhausted.
The Crandall Canyon Mine saga is far from over. Investigations are under way. A state commission is meeting to determine, among other issues, whether Utah should have its own mine regulatory agency. All of the affected families are coping the best they can, some still hoping at some point the bodies of the six trapped miners can be recovered.
Stickler hesitates to give a time frame for completion of the federal probe. He will say that many mine disasters he's studied or investigated personally had common characteristics either the laws were inadequate or weren't followed. He's drawn no such conclusions about the Crandall Canyon Mine other than to say that designing coal pillars is not an exact science and the geology of Utah's underground mines renders them more susceptible to the events that caused the collapses at the mine.
It's hard to size up a man in the brief time we had with Stickler. His visit, I suspect, was part damage control. But I walked away from our time together with a greater appreciation of what goes on behind the glare of the cameras when MSHA responds to an event and, more importantly, Stickler's personal commitment to the health and safety of miners nationwide.As I told him, these matters are not abstractions to me. My brother is a coal miner. MSHA must do its best by him and the thousands of other miners across the country. Their lives depend upon it.
Marjorie Cortez, who hopes the Crandall Canyon Mine families know peace and healing, is a Deseret Morning News editorial writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org