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A Good Dose of Perspective

July 29, 2002

There's nothing like a dramatic rescue involving big machinery, brave men and fraying threads of hope to pull a distracted nation into focus.

For more than three days it was simply more of the bad news that's constantly been in the air. Market crash not over yet, and nine miners trapped by flooding deep underground in Pennsylvania. Another little girl abducted and killed, scores die in ghastly crash at Ukrainian air show and drill bit breaks during desperate effort to reach trapped miners. Former executives of a large company arrested on fraud charges, and a town still recovering from the crash of a terrorist-hijacked plane on Sept. 11 waits on edge.

On Saturday, nothing had been heard since Thursday from the miners trapped inside a half-flooded chamber. Officials had to emphasize that the drilling was "still'' a rescue operation, not something grimmer.

Such sagging hopes made the jump to joy all the higher late Saturday night when the drilling operation reached the air pocket where the miners were and rescuers found that there were nine cold, famished, jubilant men waiting for them. People who went to bed early or otherwise missed the news woke Sunday to the happy headlines. And to a sense of perspective.

In the same section of The Times on Sunday was a littler story by staff writer Eric Slater, set in Whitewater, Wis., a town of 12,000. The state university branch in Whitewater is being whipsawed by state budget cuts that can't keep up with sinking revenue.

The school makes for a high population of professionals watching their retirement funds shrivel, and retirees whose income is drying up. They're remarkably sanguine about it. Either the markets will recover or the whole economy will go south, said one business professor, in which case "the least of your worries is going to be your 401(k) plan.''

The locals' reaction to being reminded that the economy is shaky is "So?''

No one said "So?'' at the sight of the first miner out of the hole in Pennsylvania, rising cold, soaked and coal-blackened from his near-death chamber 240 feet underground. No shrugs for the rescuers' feat of pumping warm air through a small hole into the chamber, a brilliant move to counter the bone-chilling cold of water three feet deep. No shrugs for aboveground workers' grim determination as one, then two, giant drill bits broke.

This morning, readers will get the stories of how the miners survived, what they did and said. What's on the financial pages will settle into its proper place.

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