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AP memo recounts editorial staff’s coverage of Chile mine rescue



A thousand journalists from around the world descended on a remote spot in the Chilean desert to cover the epic rescue of miners trapped almost a half-mile underground for more than two months. The AP’s Vivian Sequera, the Bogota news editor, was the one who made the difference.

In all, 33 AP staffers were at the mine, many sleeping in cold tents or shared rooms and going days without showers or hot meals or a decent night’s sleep. This combined force produced exceptional coverage, and much of that coverage was built on relationships forged by Sequera that later benefited colleagues in all formats.

Sequera lived in what became known as Camp Hope for almost a month as the AP kept a bare-bones team of reporters, photographers and cameraman at the mine throughout the weekslong rescue effort. Besides Sequera, they were led by Santiago cameraman Mauricio Cuevas and Santiago photo stringer Aliosha Marquez (who missed the end after a head injury from a fall put him out of commission just before the rescue).

Often sleeping in an AP tent alongside the miners’ relatives and standing front and center at daily news conferences, Sequera soon knew everyone who mattered in the rescue operation.

At night, she shivered at bonfires with the women in the miners’ lives, gaining their confidence. She fed the AP story wiki with each miner’s bio, relatives’ names and cell phone numbers for use by all formats. She kept AP reporting accurate; When ANSA reported that drillers were hoarding gold, her sources knocked it down.

Soon, sources sought her out. When a list was briefly posted in the off-limits family camp showing the miners’ rescue order, relatives ran to Sequera with a snapshot on their cellphone.

Sequera’s exclusives explained how the miners were more comfortable underground than many thought and how their families’ soap-opera fights contrasted with the government’s unity message. Reporting by Sequera and Bajak also led to an agenda-setting story on the most difficult decision -- whether to encase the escape shaft.

The story suggested that despite pressure from the miners’ families, rescuers wouldn’t install pipes all the way down because, as Sequera and Bajak’s sources described it, the shaft wasn’t straight. It curved and doglegged in a half-dozen places. Only after competitors shouted questions lifted from the AP story the next day did the mining minister explain that trying to insert tons of straight pipe into a winding hole could cause more problems than it solved.

When the rescue began, acting Latin American Editor Mike Warren, who had helped orchestrate the coverage across all formats in the preceding weeks, took the lead on the main story, helped by John Rice, David Koop and Lisa Adams on the Latin American desk and Brian Friedman, Erin McClam and Leon Keith on the Top Stories Desk. When the bandwidth disappeared just before the last miner was pulled out, Chief of Andean News Frank Bajak grabbed his Blackberry and called AP Radio, describing the exhilarating finale in a live broadcast.

Just hours after the rescue ended, Sequera got an exclusive interview with lead engineers Andre Sougarret and Rene Aguilar by chasing down their car and, well, begging. Sougarret, who by then knew her well, escorted her to the container that served as his office and shared the inside story for a blow-by-blow reconstruction. The story had AP readers drawing comparisons to the NASA Mission Control Center team that brought Apollo 13 home safely. It included details few had reported -- such as why the 700,000 tons of collapsed rock at the mine’s center was impenetrable: It wasn’t loose rock, but a massive monolith of stone, held in place by relatively small and loose boulders. The sheer weight meant any effort to drill near it would risk another collapse that could crush the miners below.

The work by Sequera and all her colleagues dominated play around the world.

The AP mainbar, with 93 writethrus during the marathon rescue, landed on 34 U.S. front pages, with 69 percent of the play. AP photos got 89 percent of front page play …

APTN broadcast the rescue live for 44 consecutive hours from the mine and from Copiapo ...

An AP interactive by producer Pete Santilli and artists Agustina Garcia and Merrill Sherman was embedded in the mainbar on Yahoo! … It included thumbnail photos and personal descriptions of each of the 33 miners, updated with a short video of each man reaching the surface, and a vidgraphic slideshow displaying the most compelling images of the 69-day ordeal, narrated by Peter Prengaman.

Live video streams on the Online Video Network [were] second-most ever behind the Obama inauguration.

For arduous work and source development that laid the groundwork for overwhelmingly dominant coverage of one of the biggest and most competitive stories of the year, Sequera wins this week’s $500 prize.

Mike Oreskes
Senior Managing Editor


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