As Sen. Mike Green slowly pulled away two State of West Virginia flags that had been draped over the memorial marker, a shimmering black background dotted with gold lettering came glowing into view under the spring sunshine as family, friends and local and state leaders gathered on the lawn of the Raleigh County Courthouse to commemorate the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and the unveiling of a permanent remembrance of the event.
Following a brief ceremony that started at 3:01 p.m. with one minute and 29 seconds of silence, 29 tolls of a firehouse bell and a prayer from Raleigh County Sheriff’s Department Chaplain Mitchell Barley, many in the crowd numbering nearly 200 took turns walking up to leave flowers and peer at the “Black Gold” marker that is inscribed with a brief overview of the tragedy along with the names of the 29 coal miners who were lost during the explosion and the two who were injured but survived.
A miner’s pickax, hard-hat and boots were also placed at the base of the monument for the ceremony.
Emblazoned near the lower part of the memorial itself are the words — “What Is Remembered Lives On.”
Earlier, inside the courthouse, Mick Bates, who has chaired the effort for the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce to have the memorial erected, spoke of coal’s legacy here and how appropriate it is to have both the Upper Big Branch and Eccles Mine disaster memorials sidled up to the World War II marker on the courthouse grounds.
“World War II was waged and won on the strength of West Virginia coal,” Bates said. “It’s fitting that these markers stand beside that Veterans Memorial.”
Bates went on say while great sadness struck the county three years ago, the purpose of Friday’s event was to serve as a day of remembrance and to “honor all of those that cut the coal.”
Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh also spoke and quoted Abraham Lincoln’s speech from November 1863 during the dedication of the Soldier’s National Memorial at Gettysburg.
“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
Green, who spoke about new safety legislation that state lawmakers have undertaken since UBB, said while “it’s impossible to try and make sense” of what happened April 5, 2010, it was incumbent that “we learn from it and turn a negative into a positive.”
“We need to hold all coal operators accountable,” Green added. “Now will we solve everything? Of course not. But we continue to make strides for coal miner safety; we have no other choice.”
Dena Cushman, Beckley Area Foundation financial officer, briefly addressed the group to inform them about the organization’s newest permanent endowment started by the Chamber of Commerce with a $2,900 donation to ensure future maintenance and enhancement of the memorial and to fund educational projects related to miners, mining and its local history.
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For more information or to contribute to the BRCCC-UBB Miners’ Legacy Fund:
Contact the Beckley Area Foundation
For more information about the Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial in Whitesville: