When grief-stricken parishioners showed up for Sunday mass at the San Rafael Mission church last week, they found their tiny chapel transformed into a television studio.
The night before, they had learned there was no hope left for any of the 27 miners trapped by fire in the nearby Wilberg coal mine.
Now, as the churchgoers clutched their hands in prayer and wept for their dead neighbors, bright hand-held television lights glared into their faces. Cameramen moved in for close-up shots, knocking over a Christmas creche.
"It was a difficult situation to try and pray when somebody's got a camera poking in your face," said the Rev. Gerald P. Lynch, the church's pastor. "It was a real intrusion. This community is not used to being in the public eye and having their tears broadcast all over the nation."
The shots of the bereaved parishioners of San Rafael and other local churches presented striking images on network evening newscasts that night. CBS News correspondent David Dick, who didn't attend the services but narrated that network's account, called the images "beautiful . . . , one of the stories I did we were most proud of."
But some residents were outraged. One member of the San Rafael congregation watched in disgust as cameramen tramped down the aisles. "I hope you will forgive the hate I feel for you people right now," he said to two photographers.
The church scene was part of a journalistic invasion that accompanied the mine disaster and that, for some people here, raised serious questions about the way news organizations cover such events.
Nobody here was running for office; no local officials were under federal indictment. Yet, over a five-day period during the holidays, this remote community 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City found itself propelled by tragedy into a media maelstrom.
In the process, the traditional tension between the demand for news and respect for personal privacy was strained, often to the breaking point.
When the news flashed across the country on the evening of Dec. 19 that 27 coal miners were trapped underground, more than 100 newspaper reporters, network television crews and magazine photographers descended virtually overnight on Huntington, population 2,800 -- a town so small and isolated that it doesn't receive any daily newspapers.
The three television networks commissioned helicopters and chartered airplanes. Cable News Network set up a huge satellite dish on the town's only street to beam live reports on the search for the miners. The Lion's Club hall next to the town hall was rented and turned into a jungle of telephones, camera lines and sound equipment.
"You can rest assured that nothing like this has ever happened before in this community," said Robert Henrie, spokesman for the Emery Mining Corp, operator of the Wilberg mine. "There's no question that the eyes of the world were on the community . . . and that created an element of distrust."
Much of the friction was caused by the news media's quest for a classic human interest story: interviews and films of the miners' families as they endured the agony of not knowing whether their loved ones were alive. Henrie pleaded with reporters not to film family members as they assembled at the mining company office to learn the latest account of the search.
Though some journalists agreed, others did not. When the young wife of miner Kelly Riddle broke down after learning of her husband's death, one television crew followed her out of the Emery office and down the streets with its camera rolling. Other crews camped on family members' doorsteps.
"They badgered people, and they pushed people," local editor Chuck Zehnder said of some television crews. "There was a lot of pushing and shoving that went on."
As editor of the biweekly Sun Advocate in Price, the only newspaper that reaches this area, Zehnder made an unusual decision early on: no family members would be interviewed, no coverage of their grief would take place in his paper.
"Everybody knows what these people feel," he said. "Yet you have reporters going up to them asking, 'Are you upset? Are you distressed?' It's an opportunity to appease people's morbid curiosity, and all it does is compound the distress for the families . . . ."
Yet many journalists, while sensitive to the agony of the families, say that such a restriction compromises their professional obligation to report news.
In the case of the Wilberg accident, for example, some family members were willing to talk to members of the news media and provided important information about the Emery Mining Corp.'s attempt to set a record for long-wall mining production the night of the fire -- a practice that the United Mine Workers has charged may have compromised safety and contributed to the accident.
In the first few days after the fire, Henrie told the news media that he could not confirm that the company had been going for a production record. Yet this reporter, who along with a staff photographer was covering the disaster for The Washington Post, learned some details of the record-setting efforts from the wife of a trapped miner. Other news organizations conducted similar interviews.
"I think that's preposterous," said CBS correspondent Dick about Zehnder's decision not to interview family members. "We had the wife of one of the miners on and she believed there was a direct causal relationship between the deaths in that mine and the effort to set a production record. Are you not going to show that?"
For Dick and many other journalists, the answer is to try to report the news with some sensitivity while not "loading up on the grief."
Yet, in the end, the pressures of news media competition can be as self-correcting as journalistic restraint. Four days into the tragedy a photographer on contract for a group of Rupert Murdoch publications showed up and said he was searching for a new angle.
"We're looking for something upbeat," he said. "You know, life goes on, that sort of thing."