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Thanks to the mining families of West Virginia

By Shawna Thomas, NBC News

I spent more than a week in the hills of West Virginia covering the mining disaster.  I'm not really capable of expressing the sadness of the tragedy, however I can express my thanks to the community.

The location of the all-hours press conferences was a small elementary school named Marsh Fork Elementary that sits at the base of a coal process silo that is also owned by Massey Energy.  It's about two miles from the entrance to the Upper Big Branch Mine.  The school was on spring break that week, but that didn't stop the interim principal, Shelly Prince, teachers and other members of the community from coming in and helping. 

NBC and other news organizations turned the library and various classrooms into our personal workspaces.  For at least 25 miles in each direction, there was no cell phone service.  So the first night, the school let us take turns using their few phone lines to communicate with our desks in New York, D.C. and Atlanta. We also took it upon ourselves to unplug the school's desktop computers and plug their internet cables into a slew of beat up laptops. 

The way the media took over that school, cameras set up in the cafeteria at the ready for the next presser, journalists huddled over laptops trying to get the latest updates to the rest of the world, is kind of par for the course.  In breaking news situations, it's what we do.  We turn any location into a de facto newsroom.  What wasn't normal was what happened when everyone realized we were going to be covering this story for quite some time.  People started arriving with food and water. 

It's not that there were family members at the school waiting for news of their loved ones.  They were sequestered in a blue building on Massey Energy's property. 

Yet, the nearest Dairy Queen was at least a 20-minute drive into town, so people just started showing up with big boxes of snacks and trays of spaghetti and ribs.  Some people brought us huge jars of peanut butter and bread so that we could make sandwiches at any time of the night.  Families would show up with a few breakfast sandwiches just to say thank you to us for covering the accident.  We may have been tired, but we were never hungry.

The cynicism of news professionals, mine included, was pushed to the wayside when faced with such kindness. One of our jobs was to put a spotlight on their sadness and they thanked us for paying attention.  That thankfulness showed itself in food and water but also in conversation.  People wanted to  talk about the community and coal mining. Everyone knew somebody who worked or had worked in that mine. 

Gesture will be remembered
Those conversations helped me to understand the story we were trying to tell.  I would ask a question into the ether about a particular church and without fail, someone would come up to me and say, "Oh I know someone there. Let me call them for you."  
 
But there was one small gesture that, if I ever write a book about my life, that will get a mention.  Every morning (if you can call 1 a.m. morning!), I would leave my hotel to take the super-early shift at the press location.  It would take me about 45 minutes to drive there from Beckley, W. Va.  I would stop at the same 24-hour gas station near my hotel and stock up on candy, gum, and of course coffee.  I don't recommend driving the windy roads of West Virginia in the middle of the night unless you are highly-caffeinated.

Every time I went in, the same woman would be at the counter and we would chat about the story.  She'd ask me questions and I'd fill her in with the latest information.  The last morning I went in was Saturday morning after the announcement that the last four miners' bodies had been found.  I was a little later than usual and she told me she expected me a few hours before.  I explained that the sad news meant that there were no more press conferences so I didn't need to be on site as early.  When I checked out with my few purchases, I noticed the cost was lower than usual.  She had given me my cup of coffee that morning for free. 
 I hope we did their story justice because that community did right by us.