By Taylor Kuykendall
A year after the tragic loss of 29 West Virginia coal miners at a Raleigh County mine, public officials gathered Tuesday evening with victims’ families, rescue workers and others affected by the tragedy.
At approximately 3 p.m., April 5, 2010, an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch underground coal mine near shift-change. At the time of the explosion, 61 miners were present in the mine.
In the months following the blast, families alternately and simultaneously sought the cause of the explosion that claimed their loved ones’ lives and grieved the loss. Tuesday, the families got together once again to share the grief of their common tragedy.
Crowded in the Whitesville Elementary School auditorium, family members of the victims sat before 29 white crosses topped with white helmets adorned with mining lights. Beneath each cross, a picture of the fallen miner accompanied their name.
After an opening prayer from Pastor David Minturn of the Sylvester Baptist Church, family members of the victims were reminded the lives of those who perished in the mines will forever be remembered.
“You are not forgotten,” Minturn said. “We remember.”
Coal miners, said David Hodges, assistant fire chief and EMS operations manager at Whitesville Fire Department, do not only work for themselves and for their families, but for every citizen.
“The men we remember and honor today went into the mines, not only to provide for their families, but also so that we could have light and live better lives ourselves,” Hodges said.
Jim Mitchell, West Virginia State Police chaplain, once again consoled family members he has stood beside for the past year.
“As family of our fallen coal miners, you don’t need this to remember your loved ones,” Mitchell said. “You remember them and the events of a year ago every day.”
Following spiritual encouragement from Mitchell, a bell was rung for each of the miners who died in the blast followed by a reading of their names.
Matt Jones, brother-in-law of one of the deceased miners, sang two musical selections, one a slowed-down version of “Country Roads.” Jones, choking back tears, explained his version of the song was arranged for a funeral several years ago, and he now couldn’t imagine “playing it any other way.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, governor at the time of the tragedy, commended the families and all West Virginians for their strength throughout the tragedy.
“There’s something special — and I’m still amazed at your strength,” Manchin said to the families. “… I believe in you more than you believe in yourselves … I’ve seen the adversity, and I’ve seen how we rallied together.”
Manchin said the call about the Upper Big Branch explosion brought back a flood of memories from other West Virginia mine disasters such as Sago and Aracoma.
“I said ‘Oh, dear Lord. Not again,’” Manchin recalled.
Manchin said miners should know everything possible is being done to protect miners’ safety. He encouraged those who still work in the mines not to fear retaliation for reporting unsafe conditions. He said to honor those who fell in UBB, there is no choice but to protect the state’s current miners.
“They did not die in vain,” Manchin said. “I’ve said that, and I mean that.”
Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said a year ago, “Our prayers could not and would not be answered,” as families awaited news of what happened at the explosion. He said the kindness of fellow West Virginians and the prayers of millions of Americans continue to be with the families of those who lost their family members.
Tomblin said the 29 miners lost last April were heroes long before the explosion; they were heroes every day they donned their uniform and went underground.
“Coal mining is a brotherhood,” Tomblin said. “The 29 men that we memorialize today will forever be brothers in eternity. The events of April 5, 2010, have bonded you, the families, in a way that words cannot express.”
Congressman Nick Rahall said the loss of the miners leaves behind a hole that will never be filled.
“All of us have experienced occasions when something extraordinary occurs in our lives — some blessing comes our way or some tragedy strikes — and we recall those occasions to the precise moment. Where we were. What we were doing when the news of the tragedy comes to us. Our view of the world, and that date on the calendar, is forever altered and skewered in our minds,” Rahall said. “For those of us in this room today, April 5 is one such date. For us, today, and from this day forward, April 5 will be a date that hearkens memories of a tragic time that left a mark on our lives, on this great state of West Virginia and on our nation.”
Rahall added it was important to focus not only on the tragic loss of the 29 individual miners at Upper Big Branch, but also to look forward to increasing the safety and future of miners who still go below ground every day for the state’s top commodity.
“On this day — on this anniversary — we feel this great sense of loss for the hole they left in their wake throughout this community, a void that we can never expect to fill,” Rahall said. “So I think it is incumbent upon us, on this day, to also turn our attention to the responsibilities that we have to those men. … We all share one obligation to them and to all of our coal miners — living and deceased. We must do all that we can to ensure that no other miners and no other miners’ families ever, ever have to suffer this way again.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, speaking at the Whitesville memorial service Tuesday, reiterated that while there has been significant progress in mine safety, there is still a long way to go in keeping West Virginia miners safe.
“I hope that the survivors have some measure of peace on this day and that our nation never allows such a tragedy to happen again,” Rockefeller said.
Rockefeller said, though a year has passed, the wounds left in the wake of the accident are still fresh and noted that much of the grief and pain is as deep as it was one year ago.
“How can you expect somebody to get over that really? I understand events go on, things happen, kids grow older, new sadnesses arise,” Rockefeller said to the families of the UBB victims. “But just as one person, one human being, I just don’t think that grief ever goes away. I just don’t think that it does. It’s inexplicable.”
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said the Department of Labor and the Mine Safety and Health Administration are working to ensure the safety of current and future miners.
“I know and will pledge that we will never forget this tragedy,” she said. “We will never forget this tragedy because only by remembering will we continue our vigilance to make sure this type of tragedy never happens again. Not here in West Virginia and not anywhere else in this country.”