By Andy Porras
Like millions of others worldwide, I was transfixed in front of my TV. Switching between CNN in English and Univision in Spanish, I watched as Chile’s mine-tragedy-turned-triumph unfolded live on the screen. I couldn’t help but wonder how a former editor of mine would have reacted to that human drama.
My thoughts shifted back to the last day of March in 1969. I was a full-time high school teacher and part-time reporter for the Del Rio News-Herald in South Texas, the only Latino journalist for miles around. It was a typical Monday for the newspaper and high school baseball, part of my beat, was the main topic in town. As usual, the weather was hot and humid with the same expected for the rest of the week.
In those days, noisy teletype machines ― now largely obsolete electromechanical typewriters ― were our primary international correspondents. Our paper utilized United Press International.
We had met our deadlines. I had stuck around waiting for a coach to call in with some baseball stats when the teletype bell started ringing. The UPI teleprinters had bells to signal the importance of incoming stories: four bells meant an urgent message. Five bells preceded a bulletin. Ten bells was a flash. Today its called breaking news.
Our machine’s bells wouldn’t stop ringing and both my editor and I dashed to huddle around the black machine. The editor sat directly in front of the teletype reading the information aloud.
“Mina de Barroteran, Coahuila, Mexico,” he read in his broken Spanish. “Initial reports indicate many miners trapped after explosion in a coal mine.”
After reading the English part, he just walked away. Quickly I took his place. I continued reading the report as other staff members gathered around.
I gasped as I read the figures, “More than 150 miners are believed trapped inside the mine.” Tearing the paper from the teletype, I rushed over to my editor, who was chatting with our publisher. I interrupted their happy talk and yelled, shoving the yellow paper in front of their faces. “This is big, man! More than 100 men are trapped in that mine, and the town is not even two hours from here.”
The mine was located in Mexico’s “Carboniferous Region,” the heart of a large coal formation extending from Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass to the towns of Barroteran, Nueva Rosita and Musquiz. The small mines ringing the villages produce about half of Mexico’s coal output.
I stood waiting for my editor to summon our photographer and to tell us to get on the road immediately, if not sooner. Maybe even suggesting that we could use publisher’s Cessna to fly there. He had once told me that he wanted the News-Herald to be the “paper of note along the border.”
This was our chance to scoop the big Texas papers. We were so close to the disaster site and we had a bilingual reporter ― me ― on staff.
The editors looked at me as if I had gone nuts. Silently, they went to their respective offices. I stood there waving my paper at nobody. The catastrophe had occurred practically in our backyard: 153 dead neighbors and it was becoming apparent we were not going to cover it.
I followed after my editor and asked him why?.
“They’re Mexican miners, and you can file a report from the UPI wires if you want to,” he said, turning away as he shuffled some papers on his desk.
The Mina de Barroteran disaster is the second worst in Mexico’s coal mining history. The Del Rio News-Herald carried a UPI story on the second page. And one photo.
Andy Porras is a freelance writer living in Houston. Email him at email@example.com. The article was published by Hispanic Link News Service and distributed by Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).
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