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Memorial Service for Fallen West Virginia Coal Miners

Aired April 25, 2010 - 16:58   ET


SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, WEST VIRGINIA: Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, all gathered here, we come today together as a community to grieve and to mourn our lost miners. You are the families. You must endure this terrible loss and suffering. Please know that you have the love and profound gratitude and respect of not all of us here only, but of all the world. That has been made possible by the enormity of the tragedy.

These past weeks, the entire country has been living with West Virginia and the families of our miners. They have witnessed our strength, and they have shared our pain and our sadness. But still for years, too many people beyond these hills have underestimated what it means to be a coal miner. Too many people do not understand our miners' dedication to their families and fellow miners, their work ethic, their faith, their inner toughness, and their enormous pride. They don't know how strong our miners are, how strong they need to be, in fact, to survive.

Mining is away of life in West Virginia. And we deeply cherish that, those of us who live here. And we honor that profession. And people say, well, why do they go into those coal mines? They go into those coal mines to provide for their families, and in the process, they keep the lights on in America.


ROCKEFELLER: But for the families, that means waiting each day, every day, for the sound of your loved one's footsteps on the front porch. It means waiting anxiously to hear that they have returned safely, every day. And the 29 families who one day never heard those footsteps knew what that terrible silence meant. It is almost too much to bear. So we ask why. Why does this happen yet again? As the governor said, we will find out. We will learn exactly what happened. We will get answers. And we will pass legislation to meet the requirements of those answers. And we will do it for you, the miners, of West Virginia and America.


ROCKEFELLER: In closing, I should note that West Virginia, all of West Virginia, is in pain, and not without some anger.


ROCKEFELLER: But we will find our solace and bind together as a community, because that is what West Virginians do. We will find a way to go on by finding strength in each other. Because, in fact, that is West Virginia. God bless you.


REP. NICK RAHALL, WEST VIRGINIA: Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, you honor us with your presence. West Virginians know all too well how shared hardship and sorrow make for strong and lasting ties. Such is our connection to so many in this room today. I have spent a lifetime in and around the coal fields of our state, and like you, I am proud, very proud, to be able to say that.

Here in these hills and hollows that we call home, one man relies upon another aboveground as well as underground. Life intersects life. Dreams intersect dreams. And today grief intersects grief. I will never forget the initial anguishing hours that grew into painful days following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5th.

I will always be haunted by the sound of gentle sobbing in the distance. That of a grandfather who sat in his car all week, gently sobbing, waiting for word about his grandson. I will be haunted and always remember the warmth, the generosity, of families sharing in hope and joining in despair. Heart wrenching, yes. Heartwarming, yes.

On that spring day, West Virginia and the nation lost 29 good and decent souls, God fearing men, loyal citizens, caring fathers, loving husbands, adoring sons, generous neighbors who worked hard and earned an honest wage. These men, our men, have now joined the ranks of too many miners before them who left home and headed to their daily shift anticipating the warm and loving embrace of wives and children and grandchildren at day's end, but instead emerged instead into the outstretched arms of their heavenly father.

Our loss is surely heaven's game. Our fallen miners, a flock of fisherman. A host of hunters. A pew of faithful Christians with a deacon squarely in the middle. A talented second baseman and a courteous, quiet football player. A four-wheeling practical joker. A tractor diving papa and a horse and cattle driver. Our fallen miners. NASCAR fans, gardeners, and proud veterans.


RAHALL: A country music lover. A coach and a substitute teacher. A dirt biking baseball fan. A huge Steelers fan and a blue and gold blooded mountaineer. A young and wide eyed father. A redheaded gentle giant. A karate instructor. A miniature car driving Harley man. These were our fallen miners.

You know, Mr. President, right about now I kind of think that St. Peter has a new nickname. And the pearly gates have been completely detailed. The scent of barbecue is rafting across the clouds and someone is picking at the deviled eggs.

You know the bible tells us in roman's 14:7 as I conclude, for none of us lives to himself and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live in the lord, and if we die, we die in the lord. Therefore whether we live or die, we are the lord's. For to this end, Christ died and rose and lived again that he might be the lord of both the dead and the living. Tragedy and grief, yes, bring us here today. But just as certainly hope and faith and our commitment to seeing that some true good will come from this unspeakable loss will see us through the tomorrows to come.

On behalf of my colleagues, Representative Alan Mollohan and Representative Shelley Moore Capito, it is our hope God will bless these loving families and caring friends and that his strength may abide with them always. God bless you all, and God bless our rescuers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At this time, we will sing "Amazing Grace." We'll sing the first and last stanza. Then we'll once again sing the first stanza and the conclusion. Let's stand together as we sing.


BISHOP MICHAEL BRANSFIELD, WHEELING-CHARLESTON DIOCESE: A reading from the holy gospel according to John. Jesus said to his disciples, do not let your hearts be troubled, you have faith in God, have faith also in me. In my father's house, there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to my self. So that where I am, you also may be. Where I am going, you know the way. Thomas said to him, master, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Jesus said to him, I am the way and the truth and the light. No one comes to the father except through me. The gospel of the lord.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good afternoon. It is indeed an honor to stand before the family members today. Of our 29 miners who were tragically taken from us 20 days ago, you are without a doubt some of the most wonderful people that I've been blessed to meet and I'm thankful to call you my friends.

I also stand here today in honor of the 29 miners themselves, whom I feel I know through each and every one of you. Through the hundred hours that we spent together at the family site and the precious moments at 24 of the 29 viewings and funerals I was blessed to attend, you shared with me the stories of your loved ones.

These were stories that illustrated the solid character, sense of humor, love for God and country, family and friends and love for life itself. And woven into each of their stories was the essence of a West Virginia coal miner. Things like courage and strength and brotherhood, family devotion and selflessness. It is in their memory, it is for your support and it is in your honor that I stand here today.

Monday, April the 5th, in the evening hours, I arrived at the family center and started talking with each of you who were present. I could see the anticipation on your faces, and I could hear the eagerness in your voice, longing to know the status of your loved one. Seven families were informed that very evening of their loss, and 22 others clung to that hope that four who were unaccounted for were their loved one.

And as you remember well, that Monday night was a night that was full of tremendous hurt and pain. After the governor addressed us, something happened that changed the rest of that week. We all joined hands and prayed to our heavenly father for what we alone could provide. Things like peace in the midst of perplexity. Things like calmness in the midst of calamity and strength in the midst of suffering.

And when amen was spoken, many of you repeated with a resounding amen and amen. Many of you shared with me that week your personal faith in the lord Jesus and that what you looked forward to as much as the briefings were our times that we would spend together in prayer. I understand how we are comforted when we pray to the lord, for we know and remember what the scripture teaches us about him.

In the gospel of Matthew, the scripture says he was moved with compassion for them because they were wearied and scattered like sheep having no shepherd. And in the gospel of Luke, it says as he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out, the only son of a mother. And she was a widow. And when the lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, don't cry.

Let us not forget the compassion demonstrated in the book of Romans, but God commended or demonstrated his love toward us and that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Yes, I agree with you, family. He is a compassionate God. Ten years ago this fall, I lost my father to cancer. He was my father, my counselor, and my friend. 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 on to his very serious demeanor. I looked over and I said, dad, what are you thinking about? He replied, son, everything changes. Nothing ever stays the same forever.

You know, in a temporal sense my father was correct. In an eternal sense, I'm strengthened to know that almighty God never changes. My almighty God, he never fails. And he is never defeated. And has never succumbed to anything. Amen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I drew strength from that very truth and draw it today. I still miss him. I miss him greatly. As you will. But the lord has given me grace and strength to survive.

My friends, I leave with you this thought from the gospel of John, chapter 14. When the disciplines were grieving over their soon to come separation from Jesus, he told them, let not your heart be troubled. You know, he understood they were grieving. And he did not criticize their grief, but instead he gave them a remedy for their grief.

First of all, he said -- he told them to have faith. He said, you believe in God, believe also in me. Secondly, he told them that he was their friend. He said in my father's house are many mansions or many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would have told you. You see, the lord Jesus never tells us a lie. He always tells us the truth. He told us, I am the way, the truth and the life. Yes, he is indeed a true friend. And, third, I would leave with you this. That he told them to remember, he was their future. He said, I go to prepare a place for you. I will come again and receive you unto myself. Where I am, there you may be also. Those who believed in Jesus believed that this is not the end. Oh, no, this is only the beginning. This is the commencement.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And in the words of the late S.M. Lockeridge, African-American pastor from San Diego, California, in a sermon he preached entitled "That's My King," he stated these words.

My king is the only one whom there are no means of measure that can define his limitless love. He's the sinners' savior. He's the center piece of civilization. He's the only one able to supply all of our needs simultaneously. He supplies strength for the weak. He's available for the tempted and the tried. He sympathizes and he saves. He heals the sick. He cleanses the lepers. He discharged the debtors. He delivers the captors, he defends the feeble, he blesses the young, serves the unfortunate, he regards the aged. He rewards the diligent and he beautifies the meek. His mercy is ever lasting, and his love never changes. His word is enough. His grace is sufficient. His reign is righteous. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. You can't get him off of your mind. You can't get him off of your hands. You can't outlive him and you can't live without him. Death couldn't handle him, and the grave couldn't hold him. Amen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the people here today said, amen.

CROWD: Amen.


CROWD: Amen.


CROWD: Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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. Thank you.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Governor, the families of the miners that we lost and the president and I had the pleasure to meet. I -- I learned about the courage and valor and gumption of miners sitting around my grandfather's kitchen table in Scranton, Pennsylvania, hearing stories. Stories of men they knew and lives that were lost. But I actually learned more from Robert C. Byrd who is here in serving with him so many years --


BIDEN: His incredible pride in his state and his miners is only matched by his loyalty. And it's good he was here today. 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. It was dangerous. It was dangerous work, and they knew it. But they never flinched. What amazed me is how they saddled up every day, squeezed in side by side for a cramped journey into the heart of darkness. Many of them loved it. Some of them dreaded it.

But all of them, all of them approached it with dignity, resolve and strength. They went into the mines as been referenced earlier, not only to provide for themselves and their families, but in a very direct way for all of us. And though -- and though this work defined them, it did not describe them.

As Nick Rahall said, they were fathers, grandfathers, sons, nephews, husbands and fiances. They loved hunting, fishing, riding horses and four-wheelers. They hated the way Coach Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan.


BIDEN: They rebuilt cars. They loved motorcycles. And they practiced random acts of kindness. They had their given names. But as we all learned today, they answered to cuz and peewee and smiley. Some had been mining for decades. Some for months.

One was planning a wedding. One was planning for retirement. As individuals, these men were strong. They were proud. They were providers. Collectively, they represent what I believe is the heart and soul and the spine of this nation. And, ladies and gentlemen --


BIDEN: The nation mourns them. To every member of every family that has been touched by this tragedy, I can say that I know what it's 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 is yet to stir within you. That's when you're most going to 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.


BIDEN: But as the governor and Senator Rockefeller said, we'll have that conversation later. But before that, the rest of us bear responsibility as well. And that responsibility is to be aware of, to recognize, to respect, to honor those who risk their lives so that we can live ours. And those who will continue to do this hard and dangerous work.

So often when we're met with this kind of sorrow and pain, we search, as the clergy here today can tell you, for meaning and purpose where there seems to be none. We look for answers to questions that are literally hard to ask, and even when answered, at this moment they provide little relief.

To paraphrase a communion hymn in my church, I have a wish for all of you. All of your families. May he raise you up on eagle's wings and bear you on the breadth of dawn and make the sun to shine upon you. And until you're reunited with those you lost, may God hold you in the palm of his hand. For you know, this band of 29 roughneck angels watching over you are doing that just now as they sit at the right hand of the lord today, and they're wondering, is all that fuss about me? You know --


BIDEN: You know, folks, there is a famous headstone in an Irish cemetery in Ireland. It reads this. It says, death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal. I can tell you from my own personal experience that eventually the painful heart ache you feel will be replaced by the joyful memory of the ones you love so dearly. My prayer for you is, that that day will come sooner than later. May God bless you all and may God protect all miners.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To all the families who loved so deeply the miners we've lost; to all who called them friends, and worked alongside them in the mines, or knew them as neighbors, in Montcoal, Naoma, or Whitesville; in the Coal River Valley and across West Virginia -- let me begin by saying that we have been mourning with you throughout these difficult days. Our hearts have been aching with you. We keep our thoughts with the survivors who are recovering and resting at the hospital and at the homes. We are thankful for the rescue teams. But our hearts ache alongside you.

We're here to memorialize 29 Americans: Carl Acord. Jason Atkins. Christopher Bell. Gregory Steven Brock. Kenneth Allan Chapman. Robert Clark. Charles Timothy Davis. Cory Davis. Michael Lee Elswick. William I. Griffith. Steven Harrah. Edward Dean Jones. Richard K. Lane. William Roosevelt Lynch. Nicholas Darrell McCroskey. Joe Marcum. Ronald Lee Maynor. James E. Mooney. Adam Keith Morgan. Rex L. Mullins. Joshua S. Napper. Howard D. Payne. Dillard Earl Persinger. Joel R. Price. Deward Scott. Gary Quarles. Grover Dale Skeens. Benny Willingham. Ricky Workman.

Nothing I, or the Vice President, or the Governor, none of the speakers here today; nothing we say can fill the hole they leave in your hearts or the absence that they leave in your lives. If any comfort can be found, it can, perhaps, be found by seeking the face of God, who quiets our troubled minds -- (APPLAUSE)

A God who mends our broken hearts; A God who eases our mourning souls.

Even as we mourn 29 lives lost, we also remember 29 lives lived. Up at 4:30, 5:00 in the morning at the latest, they began their day, as they worked, in darkness. In coveralls and hard-toe boots, a hardhat over their heads, they would sit quietly for their hour-long journey, five miles into the mountain, the only light the lamp on their caps, or the glow from the mantrip they rode in.

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 center; that lights up our church, or our home, our school, our office; the energy that powers our country; the energy that powers the world.


Most days, they'd emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they'd emerge, sweaty and dirty, dusted from coal. Most days, they'd come home. But not that day.

These men - these husbands, fathers, and grandfathers, brothers, sons, uncles, nephews -- they did not take on their jobs unaware of the perils. Some of them had already been injured; some of them had seen a friend get hurt.

They understood there were risks, their families did too. They knew their kids would say a prayer at night before they left. They knew their wives would wait for a call when their shift ended saying everything was OK. They knew their parents felt a pang of fear every time a breaking news alert came on, or the radio cut in.

But they left for the mines anyway. Some, having waited all their lives to be miners; having longed to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and their grandfathers. And yet, none of them did it for themselves alone.

All that hard work; all that hardship; all the time spent underground; it was all for their families. It was all for you. For a car in the driveway. For a roof overhead. For a chance to give their kids opportunities that they never knew; and enjoy retirement with their spouses. It was all in the hopes of something better. And so these miners lived -- as they died -- in pursuit of the American dream.

There, in the mines, for their families, they became a family themselves -- sharing birthdays together, relaxing together, watching Mountaineers football or basketball together, spending off days together, hunting or fishing. They may not have loved what they did, said a sister, but they loved doing it together. They loved doing it as a family. They loved doing it as a community.

That's a spirit is reflected in a song that almost every American knows. But it's a song most people, I think, would be surprised was actually written by a coal miner's son about this town, Beckley, about the people of West Virginia. It's the song, Lean on Me -- an anthem of friendship, but also an anthem of community, of coming together.

That community was revealed for all to see in the minutes, and hours, and days after the tragedy.

Rescuers, risking their own safety, scouring narrow tunnels saturated with methane and carbon monoxide, hoping against hope they might find a survivor. Friends keeping porch lights on in a nightly vigil; hanging up homemade signs that read, "Pray for our miners, and their families." Neighbors consoling each other and supporting each other -- leaning on one another.

I've seen it, the strength of that community. In the days that followed the disaster, e-mails and letters poured into the White House. Postmarked from different places across the country, they often began the same way: "I am proud to be from a family of miners," "I am the son of a coal miner," "I am proud to be a coal miner's daughter."


They were always proud and asked me to keep our miners in my thoughts, in my prayers. Never forget, they say, miners keep America's lights on.


And then in these letters they make a simple plea: Don't let this happen again.


Don't let this happen again.


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 we must do, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground.

(APPLAUSE) To treat our miners the way they treat each other - like a family. Because we are all family and we are all Americans. And we have to lean on one another, and look out for one another, and love one another, and pray for one another.

There's a psalm that comes to mind today -- a psalm we often turn to in times of heartache. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

God bless our miners. God bless their families. God bless West Virginia. And God bless the United States of America.



GOV. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Let me say on behalf of the great state of West Virginia and all of our wonderful citizens of our state, I want to thank each and every person who participated today. I want to thank all of you who came out to honor our miners, our miners' families, and all the miners that are working today and have worked for so hard for so long for all of us.

To the families, I want to say this: I hope that we gave you some comfort today, that we were able to start this healing process. You know that we love you, we'll be with you forever. When people have to go back to their jobs and back wherever they came from, we're going to be here with you. And I think you know that.

You're the greatest people. I'm the luckiest person in the world to be able to represent you. And I feel so blessed to get to know you the way I have. I wish it wasn't under the conditions that we do, but we grew pretty close over five days.

And I can still see so many of the mothers and the wives and the sisters and all (INAUDIBLE). And when I would ask you, I'd say, why don't you go home and get some rest, I knew that wasn't going to happen. I knew it. But I had to go ahead and say it anyway.

And if you recall, we met about every two or three hours. I went through a personal tragedy as so many of you all have, too. Sometimes a minute seems like an hour, an hour seems like a day, and a day seems like an eternity when you're waiting to hear something. We knew the odds were long against us. We all knew that.

But, boy, we had faith and we had hope and we were praying so much. And we'd come together and Chaplain Mitchell, you did such a wonderful job, Chaplin, I appreciate you so much.


We'd always -- as he said, we'd end with a prayer. Well, you can imagine over five days, we had a lot of prayers. And we'd come together. And Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, about Wednesday, I started getting handed these prayers -- the miners' prayers. And we would end with a miner's prayer.

On Friday evening, 8:30 was our last prayer. 8:30 was the last prayer that we had. It was the last briefing that we had before we knew the fate of all of our beloved miners. And I thought it was only befitting that I read that prayer that we read at 8:30 with all the families present that night.

Bright white lamps illume their way, so far removed from the light of day. 100 tests they face each week, down in the mines the coal to seek. Trained to live beneath the soil, dark and damp they had to toil. To wrest the minerals from the land by strength of mind and back of hand. Courage is a must, they say, to work as a miner day by day. So far removed from child and wife, and face the riggers of a miner's life. And now high above in the light of son, a child at play enjoys his fun. Fun at times concealing fear, that the mines will claim his dad so dear. And as they work beneath the clay, with heads bowed down, these miners pray. That God will hear them up above, and send them safely to the ones they love. Now, if this cannot come to pass, and he must pray the price at last, the miner leaves his last demand, keep my child safe above the land.

In front of the stage there are 29 miners' hats symbolizing the men we lost. On each hat there is a light symbolizing life. While they are gone, there are many, many memories that will shine on forever. These men will not be forgotten. These are the lights that light the world.



WHITFIELD: This memorial service for 29 miners who died in that underground explosion earlier this month now poignantly coming to an end with the lights on the helmets of 29 white crosses there being lit.

The President being led out, supporting some of the family members of those 29 miners as they concluded this ceremony. And the President getting a rousing applause there as he vowed that our task of putting him now here on earth to save lives from being lives in another such tragedy. And that being met with a rousing applause there.

This is going to conclude our coverage of that ceremony taking place out in Beckley, West Virginia. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Don Lemon up next with much more of the NEWSROOM.