Wed April 6, 2011
The Two-Way

At W.Va. Mine Explosion Memorials, Changes Promised

One year after 29 coal miners lost their lives in a massive explosion in West Virginia, state and federal officials vowed not to let such a disaster happen again.

"We will never forget this tragedy," said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis at a memorial service in Whitesville, W.Va., on Tuesday. "Because only by remembering will we continue our vigilance to make sure that this type of tragedy never happens again."

Solis spoke at the second of two services held on the first anniversary of the tragedy at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine.

The first event earlier in Beckley, W.Va., began shortly after 3 p.m., the precise time of the explosion last April 5. A bell rang 29 times in honor of the miners who died.

"I'm scared that people will forget," said Sherry Mullins Scurlock, whose brother Rex Mullins died in the explosion. "I don't want society to forget about this tragedy."

Scurlock added that a year after the blast, she still suffers "total sadness — an emptiness."

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) sought to reassure about 140 family members in an elementary school gymnasium in Whitesville.

"I want you to know that they did not die in vain," Manchin said. "I know we'll find the answer," he added, referring to multiple civil and criminal investigations into the cause of the disaster.

The stage in the gymnasium was lined with 29 white crosses. Each was topped with a miner's helmet and a brightly lit headlamp. Photos of each of the miners killed leaned against the crosses.

At both events, the names of all 29 miners were read aloud as many in the audience wept and others tried to comfort each other with hugs and hands squeezing shoulders. Some families wore T-shirts bearing the names and images of the fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and grandfathers they lost.

Coal mining was celebrated as a dangerous but honorable profession that helps light the nation's homes and businesses. But there was no mention in either service of Massey Energy, the company that owns the Upper Big Branch mine.

The day of remembrance ended with a candlelight vigil at a makeshift memorial in Whitesville. The crowd was so large it poured out onto the main two-lane highway in the Coal River Valley, forcing state troopers to restrict traffic to one lane.

Firefighters lit small flames in 29 white cloth balloons, which then rose above the crowd and the town, like floating stars in the night sky.

Back in Beckley, local officials unveiled a proposed monument for the Upper Big Branch victims. It is slated for the courthouse lawn, where an existing monument notes that more than 2,000 coal miners died in mining accidents in the county between 1891 and 1991.

The 29 deaths at the Upper Big Branch mine make that tragedy the worst mining accident in the nation in the past 40 years.

[Howard Berkes covers rural affairs for NPR and has been reporting about "Mine Safety in America."] Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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