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REFLECTING ON THE TRAGEDY AT UPPER BIG BRANCH MINE

From The Hill to the mountains

April 5, 2011
By Sen. Joe Manchin

REFLECTING ON THE TRAGEDY AT UPPER BIG BRANCH MINE

West Virginia coal miners are the backbone of this country, providing power for the printing presses that put ink on this newsprint, the steel and machinery that built our country into the greatest industrial power in the world, the military that keeps us safe and free, and the switches that turn on the lights in homes and businesses all over this country. Our miners are the salt of the earth patriotic, God-fearing, family-oriented and proud of their hard work.

At a time when our nation's attention will again focus on coal miners because of the first anniversary of the worst mining accident in 40 years, we West Virginians want the world to know that we are proud of our coal mining heritage and future. The miners of our state and their families are the heart and soul of West Virginia and an inspiration for me and all Americans. We should all draw strength and courage from theirs.

In remembering the Upper Big Branch disaster last year, my thoughts turn first to the families of the 29 miners who went to work on April 5, 2010 and didn't come home.

In the days following the violent explosion, I spent all day every day with families waiting to find out if their loved ones were alive or dead. We prayed together before and after each briefing. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance, held each other and cried together. Restaurant owners donated food, WVU's Coach Bob Huggins visited and one man, Nick Helms, whose father was killed in the Sago mining disaster in 2006, personally offered his moral support from his firsthand experience.

This was not our state's first mining disaster, or mine. When I was a young man, my own family went through the tragedy of the Farmington No. 9 explosion in 1968. Seventy-eight miners were killed that day, and it left a searing impression on me.

We didn't know right away how bad it would get. Everyone camped out at the company store for a few days waiting in the dark before authorities made the eventual decision to seal the mine. In that disaster, I lost my uncle, my neighbor and some of my high school classmates. One of the strongest lessons that has stayed with me to this day is that waiting families should be systematically updated.

I know a minute seems like an hour, an hour seems like a day, a day seems like eternity. With consistent updates, at least it seems more bearable.

Since I become governor, in the three tragedies we went through Sago and Aracoma in 2006, and Upper Big Branch last year we put in place a process that made sure families were made aware of everything that was going on. Every two hours, we made sure that the families were briefed. It was a cycle we received a briefing from authorities, then briefed the families, then the media. It was an important cycle we continued until the fate of all the miners was known.

Overall, we enacted more safety measures in my six years as governor than the 30 years before. West Virginia has become a leader in safety, and what we're implementing is being used across all types of mining. In our state, we won't tolerate intimidation from any company that puts profits ahead of safety.

The single most important element in any mining operation is the men and women who work there every day. We empowered those individual miners and their families to take more ownership and control over their own safety without fear of retribution with an anonymous tipline.

The families, the people of West Virginia and all Americans need to know how this tragedy happened and what we must do to prevent these horrible tragedies from ever happening again. We are still waiting for the results of the federal and state investigations, as well as an independent report from my special appointed investigator, J. Davitt McAteer, a West Virginia native and assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton. We will look at the results of their investigations to determine what happened, make certain it doesn't happen again and determine whether anyone through intimidation or otherwise put profits ahead of safety and that the right people are held accountable.

And while we will have much to mourn on Tuesday, we will also have the chance to honor the memories of the 29 dedicated men who died a year ago and their colleagues who continue their work with respect and dignity.

Above all, I pray for strength and continuing courage to the families of those lost as they remember their loved ones on this sacred day.

 
 
 

 

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