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Obama praises fallen W.Va. miners

President Obama offers words of praise for victims of the W.Va. mining disaster, words of solace for their families and words of hope to miners that he will make their jobs safer.
Image: Barack Obama, Joe Biden
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden attend the a memorial service Sunday in Beckley, W.Va., for the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They lived and they died pursuing the American Dream, working in dangerous conditions underground to help keep the lights on across the country, a somber President Barack Obama said Sunday in a eulogy to the workers who died in the worst mine accident in a generation.

The president told the families of the workers killed in the Upper Big Branch mine, about 35 miles from here, that the nation would honor their memories by improving safety in the mines.

"How can we fail them? How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them?" Obama said. "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," Obama said. "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."

With workers' families sitting near him — and the Massey Energy Co. executive who runs the mine sitting near the rear of the hall — Obama spoke broadly about the 29 workers killed in the explosion.

"In coveralls and hard-toe boots, a hardhat over their heads, they would sit quietly for their hourlong journey, 5 miles into the mountain, the only light the lamp on their caps, or the glow from the mantrip they rode in," Obama said.

"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."

Still no entry into mine
Investigators have detected high levels of two potentially explosive gases inside the mine, and it could be a month before investigators can get inside to determine what caused the April 5 blast. Federal regulators have identified highly explosive methane gas, coal dust or a mixture of the two as the likely cause of the blast, but the ignition source is unknown.

The explosion will be the subject of a Senate hearing on Tuesday, with the nation's top mine safety official expected to testify.

Obama has ordered a broad review of coal mines with poor safety records and urged federal officials to strengthen laws he previously called "so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue."

On Sunday, Obama noted that the mining industry is more than a source of jobs in coal country — it's a source of energy for the entire nation.

"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," Obama said.

Obama linked the West Virginia deaths with the challenges Americans face from coast to coast amid a sour economy.

"All the hard work. All the hardship. All the time spent underground. It was all for their families," Obama said. "For a car in the driveway. For a roof overhead. For a chance to give their kids opportunities they never knew, and enjoy retirement with their wives. It was all in the hopes of something better.

"These miners lived — as they died — in pursuit of the American Dream."

Before the somber memorial service, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met privately with the families of the 29 people killed in the explosion. Biden also spoke at the ceremony.

Helmets on crosses
A row of 29 white crosses lined the main stage. Behind it were photos of the miners, and to the side stood a large wreath with 29 white roses, along with two yellow ones honoring two injured miners.

As West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin read the miners' names, each of their families entered and placed a miner's helmet on a corresponding cross.

"These were strong men," Gov. Joe Manchin said. "They were strong in stature. They were strong in character. They were strong in their love for you. They were strong in their communities. They were strong in their commitment to every family member. It is our chance to be strong in their honor."

Many people who gathered for the service wore black ribbons with gold shovels and pick axes; some wore coal miners' reflective clothing. Don Blankenship, chief executive of Massey Energy, mingled with the crowd before taking his seat near the back of the floor in the Beckley-Raleigh Convention Center.

Jean Cook of Pineville displayed a new tattoo on the back of her right shoulder in honor of her 21-year-old nephew, Adam Morgan, who died in the mine explosion. Cook said she was reluctant to attend the memorial because it would take her days to recover.

"Did I want to? Emotionally, no," she said. "All this has done a toll on my nerves. I just constantly cry. I don't think there's anything anybody can say."

'Significant history of safety issues'
A preliminary report suggests the blast may have been caused by a preventable buildup of methane gas mixing with coal dust. The report from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and mine safety officials also raised concerns about a major increase in safety violations at the mine.

The report said the rate of serious violations in 2009 that required mine workers to leave while immediate repairs were made was nearly 19 times the national rate.

"In short, this was a mine with a significant history of safety issues, a mine operated by a company with a history of violations, and a mine and company that (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) was watching closely," the report said.

While Obama acknowledged that the government was partly at fault for the disaster, he laid most of the blame for the latest accident on the mine's owner. "Safety violators like Massey have still been able to find ways to put their bottom line before the safety of their workers — filing endless appeals instead of paying fines and fixing safety problems," Obama said on April 15.

Massey Energy called Obama's remarks "regrettable" and defended its safety record.