Obama honors fallen miners, stresses mine safety

By Steve Holland

BECKLEY, West Virginia (BestGrowthStock) – President Barack Obama stressed the need for greater mine safety at a somber memorial service on Sunday for 29 coal miners killed this month in the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1970.

“How can we fail them?” Obama said from a stage with 29 white crosses arrayed before him. “How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them?”

Obama was joined by Vice President Joe Biden in honoring the miners, who died in an underground explosion on April 5 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, about 35 miles from Beckley.

Obama and Biden met privately with the members of each grieving family at Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center. With them were West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, his wife Gayle, and the state’s two senators, Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller.

The crowd of several thousand stood as large video screens showed photographs of each fallen miner and their names were read aloud. One by one a family member put a miners’ helmet atop each white cross. In the crowd, a baby wailed.

The mourners joined together in singing “Amazing Grace,” and were consoled with gospel music and psalms.

“It was dangerous work and they knew it, but they never flinched,” said Biden, who called them “roughneck angels.”

Obama said the miners lived as they died: “in pursuit of 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,” Obama said.

Obama on April 15 put primary blame for coal mine disaster on Massey — “a failure first and foremost of management” — and called for better mine oversight nationwide to prevent more accidents.

On Sunday he said it was imperative “to assure safe conditions underground; to treat our miners like they treat each other, like a family, because we are all family. We are Americans.”

The tragedy was the worst U.S. mining accident since an explosion killed 38 in 1970 in Hyden, Kentucky.

Massey, the largest coal producer in the Central Appalachia mountain region, has rejected suggestions the explosion was due to a disregard for safety and has said its accident rate hit an all-time low in 2009.

Rockefeller, speaking at the service, vowed that “we will learn exactly what happened” and pass legislation in response.

A preliminary report ordered by Obama into the accident said federal mine safety inspectors warned Massey in 2007 the mine could be declared to have a “pattern of violations,” which would have given the government greater oversight.

The mine then reduced safety problems, but there was a spike in violations in 2009, with 515 citations last year and 124 so far this year, the report found.

Obama’s chief task at the event was to remember the lives lost in the disaster and lead the country in mourning, much the way he did at a memorial service last November for the 13 people killed at the Fort Hood military base in Texas.

“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, the energy that powers our world,” he said.

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(Reporting by Steve Holland, editing by Anthony Boadle)

Obama honors fallen miners, stresses mine safety