How Many Dead?

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Does it matter that everyone across the world knows how many people are dead when some deadly disaster happens, as the event unfolds? Does it matter at all that as the death toll of an earthquake, train wreck, or mass shooting solidifies, that everyone is informed, repeatedly and at short intervals, of the ever changing death count?

I think it does, but for subtle reasons that I’ll address below. But I might be wrong, and if you think this is just prurient voyeurism, and maybe even offensive, you may be right about that, and I’m not going to argue with you. Either way, I am interested in the process of counting the dead at the outset of such disaster, because it is a window into how our system of sharing information operates, and how the press itself operates. If it turns out that we agree that counting the dead as they are still dying, or very soon after as they are still being found, is important and legitimate, then we really should have best practices for doing so, rather than what we have now.

As the (onging as I write) mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine of 2023 unfolded, the number of dead soared to 20, and most notably, the number of wounded soared to 60, before both numbers came down to about a dozen or so each. I still don’t know what the numbers are. The press has been reporting “at least 13” for the last 10 hours or so, which I find astonishing. Do they not know yet? Or are they being told by hospital people, subtly, that there are individuals on life support and they are just waiting for the families to give the nod? In any event, I cannot explain why the numbers changed so dramatically in this case, but I can tell you a story about a disaster that happened several years ago in which the number of dead soared to well over a dozen, but in reality, was always exactly 3, and known to be that number from the moment authorities arrived on the placid and un-confusing scene.

It was Saint Paul, Minnesota, in April of 2004. Four teens found their way past the barrier built to secure an old mine in the high bluff over the Mississippi River, in a suburban neighborhood. The horizontal mine shaft is part of a complex known as the “Wabasha Street Caves.” They are not caves. They are mines from early in the state’s European history, dug by the corporate ancestor of 3M, and never filled in or properly secured after they fell out of use. Some of the caves have been upgraded to use as commercial facilities for parties and tours, the value of this use enhanced by the elaborated and hyperbolized history of the caves as gangster hangouts and as haunted venues. But some of the caves are just holes not comfortable or useful for these purposes, and these have supposedly been secured by capping off the entranceways.

These four kids had a way pas the cap, and on that April day in 2004, went into one of the caves, built a fire, and three of them died of carbon monoxide poisoning. A fourth was sickened, but escaped, and went to get help.

The cave was probably about two thirds of the way up a steep heavily vegetated bluff. If one were to remove a body from the cave and move it to an ambulance or coroner’s wagon, one would have to move the body down, not up, owing to the steepness of the upper third of the cliff. But the heavy vegetation meant moving very slowly. Just climbing as a fit climber from the bottom of the cliff to the cave would take a person some 30 minutes, but a bunch of fire fighters, police officers, or sheriff’s deputies moving a stretcher to which a shrouded body of a child is strapped would take a long time to reach the bottom. Hours, as it turns out.

The press was on the scene. Various reporters from the four local news stations were camped out in people’s back yards above the curved bluff, where they could barely see activity, including authorities moving with a stretcher. Others were camped out in various nearby parking lots in the commercial zone down on the flats below the bluff. They also could barely see through the vegetation if anyone was moving up or down the bluff. And, of course, some reporters could see the bodies being loaded into a vehicle, but for the most part the public and the reporters were all kept well back from the parking lot to which the bodies were being moved.

For some reason I decided to watch this event unfold from my office, with all four TV stations running either on a TV, a computer, or a radio. As I observed, I notated that reports of a body being removed would come first from a particular reporter, then some 15 minutes later or so, a different reporter, and after another 15 minutes or so, another reporter. Meanwhile, all the reporters were listening to each other. The process of removing a body and moving that body to the parking lot below took a long time, and no one was coordinating the information, so over time the total number of bodies being removed became a function of one or more reporters reporting that they could see a body, with those reports happening in a short period of time, separated by long periods of no reporting, but a lot of yammering about earlier reports echoing among the various news stations. Every cluster of observations was counted as a body, even though one body’s movement was triggering between two and four clusters of reports.

So every kid got counted about four times, causing the death toll to creep up to about a dozen. It stayed that way for most consumers of the news until much later that night or the next morning, when authorities reported the number of three dead.

I would wager that something like this happened in Lewiston. In a chaotic environment, with reporters and witnesses both providing information and hiding out at the same time, some, perhaps many, of the dead were counted more than once. This way 13 got to 20. I suspect the injury counts were from garbled information from hospitals and treatment centers. Three hospitals hear that there are a total of 20 injured people, but that count is for all the hospitals. Reporters hear “20” three times and gets 60.

We know people can’t count. Have you ever been at a four-way stop with five cars at it? Then you know people can’t count. Reporters are not hired due to their ability to handle numbers, but you would think editors and producer would know by now that these numbers are always garbled.

And I think getting it right is important. Roughly concurrent with the Lewiston tragedy is the ongoing analysis of a missile strike in Gaza, where the number of dead killed in an explosion at a hospital went from 500 and climbing to 300 then, according to one source, 50. This is all tragic no matter what, but 500 would have been equal to a third of the number of Israelis killed a couple of days earlier by Hamas, while 50 is yet another Israeli air-strike on an occupied building. Politically, this matters a lot.

So why does the immediate as-it-happens death count matter? It might not, but there are a few possible reasons it does. One is the basic principle that everyone wants to know everything all the time; telling the press to not be an immediate conduit of information for one thing may be the first domino in a series of domino falls that are not good. Another is that there may be agents that need information right away and act on it. I’m sure that hospitals and such have phone trees to call people in during a disaster, but I can also imagine a hospital worker, a nurse, or an ER doctor hearing about a disaster in their geographical area and, learning that the number of casualties is high, heading towards their workplace even before a possibly semi-broken or otherwise ineffective call to action happens. Politically, is is important that a broad range of people know about some bad thing some bad person is doing. Potential donors to disaster relief have to get softened up as soon as possible. That sort of thing.

But at the same time, having the information be inaccurate can cause more problems than it can solve. This argues for best practices to be developed and deployed. There should be a manual for counting the dead. At the very least, officials need to change the way they prioritize the transmission of information. Instead of focusing on presenting laundry lists of agencies involved (which is the de rigueur yammering we tend to hear these days) perhaps they should focus more on accuracy in describing what is happening. It seems that at present, there is not much of a focus on accuracy.

When I started writing this post the death toll in Lewiston was “13 or more” according to NBC. As I finish it (a couple of hours alter, having had an interruption or two), the same news agency is saying “at least 18.”

The suspect remains at large.

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