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Bells, tears mark 1 year since W.Va. mine blast

By Staff | Apr 8, 2011

(AP photo) Mine helmets and painted crosses sit at the entrance to Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine Tuesday, in Montcoal, W.Va. The memorial represents the 29 coal miners who were killed in an explosion at the mine one year ago today.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – A year later, the pain of the nation’s deadliest coal mine explosion in decades remained fresh for the families of the 29 men killed at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine.

More than 120 fathers, mothers, siblings and children crowded a school gym and church, shedding tears Tuesday as they remembered and prayed for the victims killed when the powerful blast tore apart the Upper Big Branch mine April 5, 2010.

Church bells rang across the state at 3 p.m., the estimated time of the explosion. Massey Energy Co., owner of the mine, halted underground production in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.

“Ultimately, I’m one of those who believes that it never really does go away, the pain,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said during a somber memorial service for the families in Whitesville, eight miles from the mine. “In some ways, maybe it shouldn’t because it is a form of love and obligation to those who are affected.”

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told the families the Obama administration will make mines safer and continue its civil and criminal investigations.

“These 29 brave men. The pain that they have suffered and what you have suffered reminded me of the work that has yet to be done,” Solis said. “Safety should never be sacrificed and these deaths should not have been.”

Many of the families wore shirts commemorating lost relatives or miner’s clothes bearing their distinctive reflective safety stripes.

“On this anniversary, we celebrate them. We celebrate these courageous miners. We remember them, each of them as individuals,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. “I know many of them through you.”

President Barack Obama said in a statement that his administration is working to bring those responsible to justice and prevent a similar tragedy from occurring again.

“The Justice Department’s investigation into the mine owner’s practices in West Virginia has led, so far, to two criminal indictments,” Obama said. “We know we can also improve our mine safety laws to better provide for the safety of the men and women who work in America’s mines.”

The day began with acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin solemnly laying a wreath of yellow roses adorned with a black ribbon at a memorial to the state’s coal miners on the Capitol grounds. Alongside the wreath in a plastic sleeve was a child’s hand-drawn card depicting a cross, shovel and pick, and a plea for God to bless the fallen men. Attached was a gift, a plastic cube containing a tiny yellow toy backhoe.

Later at First Christian Church in Beckley, candles were wrapped with the reflective orange striping that miners wear underground on their navy blue work clothes. Tiny lapel ribbons in the same orange and silver were handed out to about 150 people who gathered for a brief service with prayers and song, but no speeches. Nearly all wore either a miner’s shirt or jacket, or a ball cap bearing the number 29.

Terry Ellison of Beckley lit 29 candles, a bell tolling each time, in honor of her brother, 40-year-old Steven “Smiley” Harrah, who was killed as he was ending his shift and leaving the mine with the others.

“It’s just like yesterday for us, and it will never get better. We’ll just learn how to cope with it,” Ellison said.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has said the explosion occurred when methane gas ignited, then touched off highly explosive coal dust that had been allowed to accumulate in the mine. The result was a blast so powerful it turned corners and rounded a 1,000-foot-wide block of coal, packing the power to kill men more than a mile away.

Massey denies any wrongdoing, blaming a sudden inundation of natural gas that overwhelmed all safety systems.

“The company remains fully committed to a thorough and comprehensive investigation that seeks to identify the primary causes of the explosion and provide answers to the UBB families and the communities we serve in Central Appalachia,” Massey said in a statement.

Federal officials say they hope to provide more insight into the explosion during a public meeting set for June 29.

Previous mine disasters in West Virginia, including the Sago mine explosion that killed 12 men in January 2006, spurred legislation aimed at making coal mining safer. But after Upper Big Branch, mining legislation stalled in Congress and was never seriously considered in West Virginia. Regulators have toughened some rules, particularly ones requiring mines to do more to prevent coal dust explosions, but the industry considers those punitive measures.

– From wire reports