A somber yet passionate President Barack Obama was enthusiastically cheered for his eulogy here Sunday in which he honored the 29 coal miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion on April 5 and vowed to try to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
“These miners lived and died in pursuit of the American dream. … We cannot bring back those 29 miners we lost. They are with the Lord in heaven.
“Our task here on earth is to keep lives from being lost again,” Mr. Obama said during his 15-minute eulogy at the “Hope and Healing” memorial service held in the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center.
Mr. Obama, whose entrance in the hall and appearance on the stage for the eulogy was greeted with a standing ovation, said the entire nation had grieved for those lost in the massive explosion in the mine about 35 miles west of the convention center. He noted he had received innumerable e-mails from across the country from proud mining families expressing their sorrow at the tragedy, the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1970.
“Each one ended with a simple plea — ‘Don’t let this happen again,’ ” the president said before launching into an impassioned passage during which the crowd cheered louder with every phrase.
“How can we fail them? How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them? How can we let anyone in this country put their lives at risk by simply showing up to work, by simply pursuing the American dream?”
The theme that the miners’ deaths would spur a tightening of safety regulations for mining was repeated by Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen.Jay Rockefeller and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, all of whom likewise promised during the more than three-hour service that the cause of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion would be uncovered and regulatory changes would ensure mining is made safer. Their remarks, like those of Mr. Obama, were met with standing ovations and cheers
Mr. Biden called the coal miners “the spine, heart and soul of this nation.”
“It was dangerous work and they knew it, but they never flinched,” Mr. Biden said. “The nation mourns them. Certainly no one should have to lose their life for their livelihood.”
“I don’t have answers why this happened,” Mr. Manchin said, “but I promise we will find the cause. I pledge to each and every one of you, your loves ones will not have died in vain. We owe it to you. We owe it to them.
“Our journey through this grief is a long one. Our healing has begun. We are all stepping forward.”
The service, attended by a capacity 3,000 people, at times resembled a revival meeting. Attendees, including many miners wearing mining shirts with reflective orange stripes, shouted “Amen!” in a call and response to prayers by preachers, sang along with hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and clapped in time with other musical numbers.
They applauded respectfully yet loudly and stood during the powerful and poignant beginning of the program. When the name of each miner who perished in the explosion was read by West Virginia first lady Gayle C. Machin, his picture appeared on two large video screens. Carrying a miner’s helmet, the family of each miner walked down the aisle through the crowd.
As they did so, they passed by Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy Co., which operated the Upper Big Branch mine. Mr. Blankenship, who sat in the last row on the arena floor, has defended his company’s commitment to safety despite a lengthy list of safety violations.
At the foot of the black-draped stage, the families were greeted by Mr. Manchin and Mr. Obama. And then each miner’s helmet was placed on one of 29 white crosses.
The photographs showed the men, who had nicknames like “PeeWee,” “Smiley,” “Griff,” and Boone,” in everything from mining outfits to tuxedos, from fishing gear to hunting camouflage, from sweatshirts to shirts and ties. Some wore beards or goatees. All wore smiles.
The sense of loss was brought home by the procession of the families, some with 15 members or more. There were the perished miners’ mothers and fathers, their widows, their brothers and sisters, their children, their grandchildren — from babes in arms to toddlers with stuffed animals to teenagers.
Some wore T-shirts with the name of their loved one printed on it, the date and site of the accident and “Never Forget.”
At the conclusion of the service, one by one, the lamps on each helmet that had been placed on the crosses were turned on, which Mr. Machin said represented a light of hope in the darkness of the tragedy.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Male Chorus sang a stirring rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” as the crowd clapped loudly and sang along before streaming out of the center, their hearts still heavy yet seeming salved.
BECKLEY, W.Va. — At first, Travis Holdren couldn’t talk about the explosion that nearly knocked him out of a mine and stole 29 of his friends.
Twenty days after the fierce blast at the Upper Big Branch mine, he still has ringing in his ears and pain in his heart.
“He was really emotional,” said his mother, Peggy. “I told him we should start going to some memorial services where it’s OK to cry.”
He did cry Sunday, as photos of his fallen brothers glowed on a pair of giant screens before him — one after another after another.
Jason Atkins. Carl “Pee Wee” Acord. Kenneth Chapman Sr. Joshua Scott Napper.
Men with whom Mr. Holdren worked and trained, but knew by nicknames like “Cuz” and “Griff” and “Boone.”
Mr. Holdren, almost hidden in the crowded convention center save for the glint of his reflective orange mining stripes, dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief.
“I knew them all,” he said after the three-hour service, full of prayer and pleas that a catastrophe like the one at Upper Big Branch never happen again.
The April 5 underground explosion that thrust this coal community onto the national map on Sunday united miners and families, clergy and President Barack Obama under the dome of the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center.
Outside, groups of mine rescuers who fought against deadly gases to check for survivors in Upper Big Branch reunited and posed for photographs, then paused to kiss their wives. They pinned black ribbons to their matching blue shirts and said they had come to support the miners’ families.
Relatives and friends donned T-shirts they designed to honor the men. Peering out from the back of Gary Coburn’s T-shirt was a picture of his nephew, Rick Lane, who died in Upper Big Branch. In the picture, Mr. Lane, in mining overalls, is smiling, as he always seemed to.
“He was the best man you’d ever meet,” his uncle said.
Inside the convention center, perceptive event planners left pocket-sized packets of tissues on some of the seats. As the state’s first lady, Gayle Manchin, listed the fallen miners, the names drew applause, as did their photographs from happier days of fishing and hunting and dancing with their wives.
For a tragedy of its magnitude, the service was intimate.
Gatherers heard from pastors who told them to find peace through faith, from a middle school choir whose melodies soothed, from a tearful state police chaplain who spoke of their strength and finally from Mr. Obama, who said what most were surely thinking: “Don’t let this happen again.”
Mourners paused to embrace as they departed under a setting sun. Among them was Regina O’Neal of Glen Jean, whose brother was killed six months ago in a different mining accident. She sympathized with the families and warned of the painful road that lies ahead of them, one that, for her, is still dotted with unanswered questions.
“My goodness, how many tissues did I go through?” Ms. O’Neal said. “But I liked the part when Obama said he’s going to make sure there’s better laws. He’s going to protect these men.”
Tammy Gobble, a kindergarten teacher at Marsh Fork Elementary, taught miner Gary Quarles when he was a third grader, and later his kids. For five agonizing days she waited at Marsh Fork, where reporters were stationed, to learn whether any of the men had survived. In a moment that drew the attention of news cameras, she collapsed in the governor’s arms when she learned at a midnight news conference that none had.
On Sunday, tears welled in her eyes, her grief still raw.
“Look at me,” she said. “It’s still there. It’s still there.”