By Mannix Porterfield
At first blush, he hardly looked like a West Virginia governor, clad in a blue work shirt and a pair of jeans.
Then he spoke.
From that moment on, there was no doubt that Joe Manchin, sans his typical immaculate business suit and striped tie, was the top executive officer in the state, and once again, he was being called upon to head a mission he was all too painfully experienced in — leading West Virginia through the agony of another coal mining disaster.
In a state where industrial accidents are frequent and often on a disastrous scale, Manchin had been pressed into similar duty only four years earlier when an underground explosion ripped through the Sago mine in Upshur County.
“My heart literally sank,” Manchin said of his reaction upon learning, while visiting friends in Florida with first lady Gayle Manchin, that another mine tragedy was unfolding.
“I just kept thinking, ‘No, not again.’ I just wanted all of the information, but we didn’t know too much when my staff first informed me.”
As soon as word reached him, Manchin flew back to West Virginia and headed for an isolated pocket of Raleigh County, where the world’s attention was now riveted.
Manchin got there in the early hours of the day after and wound up staying at the scene for five days. Manchin elected to stay on site so that he could immediately and regularly update grief-stricken families on any new developments during the arduous rescue efforts, hampered at times by accumulations of noxious gases.
For Manchin, the Upper Big Branch tragedy revived memories of the 1968 disaster in Farmington, where 78 miners died when an explosion roared through the complex. Manchin lost an uncle and several friends in that incident.
Manchin said he personally understood how each passing hour can feel like an eternity as one awaits word on the fate of a loved one trapped underground.
For all of the grim news emanating from the bowels of Upper Big Branch, Manchin said he found a strong spirit of faith among the families, “their unwavering strength and unbreakable courage” that left him both amazed and inspired.
Manchin said his foremost duty was to protect the families, “comfort them at the most difficult time in their lives,” and manage the crisis.
Not the least of this mission was to make sure the rescue operation was well coordinated between federal and state officials, he said.
After each briefing, Manchin returned to the compound where anxious families had collected to give them the latest information on the progress of the rescue, after which he anchored briefings for a plethora of news reporters from across the nation.
“The single top priority was hopefully rescuing the miners and providing safety and comfort to the families while they waited,” said Manchin, now a U.S. senator.
“Everyone — from first responders, the state and federal mining authorities, to mine rescue teams, to the many volunteers — all came together and worked tirelessly for days. Their support, compassion and determination are true testaments to why West Virginians are so special.”
Manchin wasted no time in choosing J. Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary for MSHA under former President Bill Clinton, to head up an independent investigation.
McAteer’s investigation is nearing its completion, and Manchin has said he wants all stones overturned, all questions answered.
“West Virginians deserve to know what happened at Upper Big Branch, why this tragedy occurred and whether it could have been prevented,” the senator said.
Once all the files are completed and open, Manchin said he intends to evaluate the conclusions and examine proposals for enhancing underground safety.
West Virginia lawmakers approved more safety regulations after the Sago and Aracoma accidents than in the previous three decades, among them efforts to improve tracking, shelter, rapid response and communications.
“The senator empowered individual miners to report unsafe conditions anonymously and established a tipline for those reports,” said Manchin’s communications director, Emily Bitner.
“He will always put their safety above profits. That was his guarantee as governor and will continue to be his guarantee as senator.”
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