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Murray's meltdown: Angry, rambling briefing draws rebukes
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Robert Murray scoured the skies for the helicopters above Crandall Canyon, refusing to continue his disjointed, rambling Tuesday morning media briefing until the county sheriff chased them off.

It was a public relations meltdown that prompted the chairman of the U.S. House labor committee to demand that federal officials take the helm of all future briefings on the cave-in that trapped six men in the Crandall Canyon coal mine.

But in many ways it appears to have been Murray being Murray - an eccentric, passionate, politically connected coal executive who has never shied from speaking his mind.

In his briefing, an update of the Crandall Canyon mine collapse that was carried live on national television, Murray defended the coal industry, attacked the media and railed against what he called a foolhardy crusade against global warming that jeopardized his industry and America's economy.

Murray insisted there was no way the collapse was not caused by an earthquake - "It was a natural disaster and I'll prove it to you" - even though a federal geologist said Tuesday evening the collapse was absolutely not caused by an earthquake.

Crisis management and public relations authorities criticized Murray's performance as "callous," "damaging" and "not very helpful" to the families of the six miners trapped underground.

"The families of the six trapped miners are deeply worried about the welfare of their loved ones. They need and have a right to the most credible, objective, and up-to-date information available about the status of the rescue effort," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House labor committee. "The news conference held this morning at the mine did not meet this standard."

After the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, where confusing and contradictory information was given to families and the press, Congress passed a law requiring a Mine Safety and Health Administration official to handle communications with the families, press and public.

Tuesday afternoon, MSHA head Richard Stickler handled the briefing, but Murray was back in front of the microphone Tuesday evening. "It's his mine, he's entitled to hold whatever press conference he wants," said MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere.

"His behavior is the beginning of blame-shifting, which causes people to dislike business leaders and to distrust those who blame others for their problems," said James Lukaszewski, president of The Lukaszewski Group, a White Plains, N.Y., crisis management consulting firm.

Laura Crawshaw, president of Executive Insight Development Group, a Salt Lake City-based firm that coaches abrasive executives, said that, "The role of a leader during crisis is not to defend himself or his company. Murray opened his address by defending the value of coal mining and the safety practices of his company. This is not what people need or want to hear in such a moment."

Murray deserves some sympathy, said Chris Thomas, owner of The Intrepid Group, a Salt Lake City public relations company, who was spokesman for the family of Elizabeth Smart during her abduction five years go.

"The pressure in a situation like this is indescribable unless you've experienced it yourself. From my own experience, usually the main principles are physically and emotionally exhausted," Thomas said.

Murray is a man who wears his emotions publicly, whether it's clashing with Congress, scolding regulators or briefing reporters.

Born into a mining family in Ohio, Murray was 9 when his father was paralyzed by a fall at a mining convention, according to a profile in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

Upon leaving North American Coal Corp. after 31 years with the company, he bought his first mine, the Powhatan No. 6 mine in Alledonia, Ohio. Over the years his company grew to include mines in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia.

Last year, he completed the purchase of the former Andalex Resources mines in Utah. One of his first moves was to shut down the Tower Mine, idling 114 workers less than two weeks before Christmas.

Murray blamed environmentalists and state regulators who had been slow to approve production at the Lila mine, forcing him to cut jobs, he told the Price-based Sun Advocate. John Baza, head of the state's Division of Oil and Gas, disagreed, writing the paper to say the layoffs were a business decision unrelated to the Lila mine, which was delayed because Murray's company hadn't provided necessary information.

Murray is strident in his belief that global warming is a fraud. In June, he told a Senate committee that Congressional Democrats and former Vice President Al Gore are bent on "the destruction of American lives and more death as a result of his hysterical global goofiness with no environmental benefit."

He called Sen. Hillary Clinton "anti-American" in an interview with Fox News' Neil Cavuto after the senator said America needs a president who will defend workers' rights.

And he bashed politicians who, after mine disasters in West Virginia last year, called for new safety measures.

"I resent these politicians playing politics with my employees' safety," he said in an article in the Columbus Dispatch. "I resent them because I take the safety of my miners to bed with me every night."

But safety at some of his mines was suspect. Only a few months' data is available for the Crandall Canyon mine under his ownership, but at several other mines owned by Murray, the accident rate was well above the national average, in some years several times the rate for comparable mines.

And in 2003, KenAmerican Resources, a company owned by Murray, was convicted of violating mine safety laws at a Kentucky mine and the company was fined $306,000.

Murray backs his political beliefs with his pocketbook. He contributed more than $213,000 to Republican candidates over the last decade. Three political action committees tied to Murray's businesses have given $724,500 to Republican candidates and causes, including $4,000 to Rep. Chris Cannon.

He made use of his political ties to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and oversees MSHA, to get back at a safety regulator who had crossed him, according to the Lexington Herald-Journal. In the meeting, Murray shouted that "Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and last I checked, he was sleeping with your boss."

Murray denied he referred to McConnell and Chao sleeping together. Tim Thompson, the MSHA manager who was the target of Murray's wrath, was reassigned and later retired.

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