Coal Tattoo

Coal miners memorial: So many white crosses

Obama Mine Explosion

As I watched today’s memorial service for the miners who died in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, I was taken back to the public hearing on the Sago Disaster four years ago.

I remembered the photos of the 12 miners, hung on the wall behind the podium at the witness tables in the huge gymnasium at West Virginia Wesleyan in Buckhannon.

And all I kept thinking today was … so many white crosses …

And there were so many photographs. It took so long for all the families to be announced and come in to their seats. It took President Obama so long to read off all the names. It took the mine rescue teams so long to light the cap lamps hung on those white crosses …

Look around your workplace tomorrow and imagine 29 people gone in one instant. That’s what happened at about 3 p.m. on April 5 deep inside the Upper Big Branch Mine, when methane — and probably coal dust — ignited and blew up the mine. Twenty-nine men, all gone … and now, so many white crosses.

I was three years old the last time this many coal miners died at once in our country. That was Dec. 30, 1970, on Hurricane Creek in Kentucky. I hope and pray I won’t ever again have to dig out my list of U.S. coal-mining disasters for a graphic in the Gazette. 

Today’s memorial was fitting in many ways. Gov. Joe Manchin talked about his own family’s experience, now so many years ago, when his uncle died at Farmington. Gov. Manchin, Sen. Rockefeller and others rightly used their speaking time today to remind the nation that we all owe a debt to coal miners and their families, every single time we flip a light switch or boot up our computer:

These were hard working and brave men, and I know you all know it takes brave men to work beneath the surface … I believe that each of those 29 miners like very miner working today, as well as many of their fathers and grandfathers who worked before them have not only a strong commitment to provide a good living for their families, but a deep patriotic pride that the work they did and the energy they produce made America strong and free.

Obama Mine Explosion

Family members of a deceased miner head to their seats after placing a helmet on a cross as West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, left, watches during a memorial for the victims of the Upper Branch Mine explosion at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Obama Mine Explosion

President Barack Obama speaks during a memorial for the victims of the Upper Branch Mine explosion at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, who has represented Southern West Virginia in Washington for more than 30 years, talked about the men who died, reminding us they were more than guys who went to work every day in a coal mine:

… A flock of fishermen, a host of hunters … a talented second basement and a courteous, quiet football player … a four-wheeling practical joker, a tractor driving paw paw and a horse and cattler farmer.

… NASCAR fans, gardeners and proud veterans … A country music lover, a coach and a substitute teacher … a dirt-biking baseball fan and a huge Steelers fan and a blue-and-gold blooded Mountaineer … a young and wide-eyed father, a red-headed gentle giant, a Karate instructor and a minature car driving Harley man … These were our fallen miners.

The Rev. James Mitchell of the West Virginia State Police delivered a powerful eulogy based on his experience spending many hours with the families as they waited for word on the miners and on his own life experience. Talking directly to the families, Rev. Mitchell said:

Ten years ago this fall, I lost my father to cancer … about a month before his death, he asked me to take him for a ride in the truck. Upon our return, we sat in the truck as the sun burst through the windshield onto his very serious demeanor. I looked over and I said, “Dad what are you thinking about?” He said, “Son, everything change. Nothing ever stays the same forever.”

You know, in a temporal sense, my father was correct. In an eternal sense, I am strengthened to know that almight God never changes … he never fails, he is never defeated and has never succombed to anything. I drew strength from that very truth, and draw it today. I still miss him. I miss him greatly, as you will … May God bless our miners, and families, may God bless each and every one of you … and may God bless the state of West Virginia.

Vice President Joe Biden remembered listening to miners in his hometown of Scranton, Pa., and the lessons he’s learned about coal miners from West Virginia’s Sen. Robert C. Byrd:

The men we remember today went into the darkness so that we could have light … they embraced a life of hard work and a career full of peril … many of them loved it, some of them dreaded it. And though this work defined them, it did not describe them … they loved hunting, fishing, riding horses and four-wheelers. They hated the way Coach Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan …

Some had been mining for decades. Some for months. One was planning a wedding. Another was planning to retire.

Collectively, they represent what I believe is the heart and the soul and the spin of this nation … and the nation mourns them.

Biden, who lost a wife and daughter in a car accident, continued:

To every member of every family that has been touched by this tragedy, I can say I know what it is like to lose a spouse and a child. And I also know when the tributes are done and the flags are once again flying at full-staff, once the miners you see today go back to work, that’s when it will be the hardest for you all. When life has moved on around us, but has yet to stir within you, that’s when you are going to move need one another.

Because for other people, for the lucky ones, life gets to go on. But as a community and as a nation, we would compound tragedy if we let life go on unchanged. Certainly, nobody should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood … but we’ll have that conversation later.

Obama Mine Explosion

President Barack Obama, walks with Linda Davis, the grandmother of deceased miner Cory Davis, during a memorial for the victims of the Upper Branch Mine explosion at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

I’ve posted the entire text of President Barack Obama’s remarks in an earlier Coal Tattoo entry here, but a couple things stood out to me, including the fact that the President read the entire list of names of the fallen miners.  He also talked about how we take coal’s impact for granted:

Day after day, they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor, what we so often take for granted: the electricity that lights up convention centers like this; that lights up our churches and homes, our schools and offices; the energy that powers our country and the world.

Most days, they would emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they would emerge, sweaty, dirty, dusted with coal. Most days, they would come home. Most days, but not that day.

And there’s the part at the end, the part that we’ll have to watch and wait and see if everyone involved in the coal industry and regulating it remembers:

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?

We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy. To do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners the way they treat each other – like family. For we are all family. We are Americans.

Then came the rescue teams, the brave men who risked their own lives hoping to find survivors deep inside Upper Big Branch. I recognized some of them as the same men who risked their lives four years ago at Sago and Aracoma … and I could only imagine how much they must be hurting, having worked so hard in the hopes that the outcome this time would be different.

As the crowd sang “This Little Light of Mine,” those rescue team members walked past the row of white crosses, taking turns flipping on the lamps on the caps that had been hung on the crosses … so many white crosses …

Obama Mine Explosion