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Community mourns 29 Upper Big Branch miners

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Disaster anniversary renews call for reform

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- William Griffith wanted to take his grandson Caleb on the boy's first fishing trip. He never got the chance.

Griffith died on April 5, 2010, along with 28 other coal miners killed in an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

"We took [Caleb fishing] a couple of weeks ago," said William Griffith's widow, Marlene. "It was so sad. It wasn't how it should be."

Marlene Griffith, her son and daughter, and some family friends were among more than 200 people who turned out Tuesday afternoon for one of a series of memorial services to mark the one-year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Family members, friends and others from the community filled Beckley's First Christian Church for a low-key afternoon memorial. They came wearing suits and Red Cross jackets or T-shirts that paid tribute to the men they lost.

Kara Scurlock didn't know any of the miners, but brought her three children anyway, all decked out in the striped shirts her coal miner husband, Brian, wears to work every day. Her husband worked for a time at Upper Big Branch and knew many of the miners who died, she said.

"It's just to show my respect," Scurlock said. "It's just sad. My heart goes out to the families and the friends."

The long, emotional day of remembering began at 10 a.m., when state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, placed a wreath on the coal miner statue at the Capitol. A small white sign planted in the flowerbed listed the names of the 29 miners who died.

Two other workers were injured in the blast, the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster since Dec. 30, 1970, when 38 men died in an explosion at Finley Coal Co. in Leslie County, Ky.

Federal and state investigators believe the explosion involved a small ignition of methane gas that was propelled into a much larger blast by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust underground. Massey has denied any wrongdoing, and its chairman, Bobby Inman, told The Wall Street Journal on Monday that he believed the explosion was a "natural disaster."

The explosion and Massey's operations at the mine near Montcoal are the subject of a wide-ranging federal criminal probe. So far, a former Massey miner and the company's Upper Big Branch security director have been charged with crimes not directly related to the cause of the explosion.

On the one-year anniversary of the fatal blast, residents around the state paused for a moment of silence at 3:01 p.m., the estimated time of the explosion.

"It was a national tragedy," said Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall, whose district includes the mine. "We must do all that we can to ensure that no other miners and no other miners' families ever, ever have to suffer this way again."

On Tuesday evening, family members, emergency responders, political leaders and invited guests attended a memorial service at Whitesville Elementary School. The event was closed to the general public, but was broadcast over the Internet by a student project at the West Virginia University School of Journalism.

State Police Chaplain Jim Mitchell, who ministered to the families while they waited for word on a doomed rescue effort, read the names of the 29 miners. A silver bell was rung after each name.

"You don't need this service to remember your loved ones," Mitchell told the families. "You remember them and you remember the events of a year ago and every day of your lives."

A row of crosses, one for each miner, lined the front of the stage. Local musicians, some with ties to the fallen miners, played songs including the unofficial state anthem, "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

Doreen Price, who lost her husband Joel in the disaster, said events like Tuesday's memorial help the families.

"You have your family, but to know that you're not forgotten makes a difference," she said.

Political leaders paid tribute to the coal industry and coal miners, saying West Virginia produced the energy and steel the fueled the industrial revolution and continues to make modern America run.

"We are everything that is good about West Virginia," said Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who was governor when the disaster occurred.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said most West Virginians -- and most Americans -- just don't understand coal mining, coal miners or coal-mining communities.

"I think we stand in awe of you, as families, as a community, as a profession, a hidden, dangerous, marvelous, awesome profession called being a coal miner, taking care of the needs of the world, and sometimes sacrificing, in the ultimate sense," Rockefeller said.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told the families that the Upper Big Branch deaths never should have occurred.

"We're not going to let this pass," Solis said. "Our work is not done. We all have to work harder for miners and their families, because you provide so much to us."

Tomblin said he would "do everything humanly possible," but that "only the good Lord knows" if other mining families would have to suffer through a coal-mining disaster.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., agreed with Tomblin's assessment.

"I yearn so much for the assurance that the work we're doing in Washington will give the confidence that this will never happen again," McKinley said. "But, as we've all learned, in many respects, it's out of our hands. But we can do whatever man can do."

Shirley Whitt, whose brother, Boone Payne, died at Upper Big Branch, said she didn't know if mining disasters are always preventable.

"I think there are a lot of precautions you can take, and I also think there are a lot of dangers," Whitt said. "People are people, and no matter how much you try to do things right, things are going to happen."

But Hattie Morgan, whose grandson Adam Morgan was killed in the mine, said the deaths could have been prevented and that someone should and will eventually be punished.

"I'm just glad they're finding some answers," Morgan said. "The hard part is not knowing what is going on. I know it's not going to bring them back, but I just hope they find out what happened, what caused it."

The passing of a year hasn't eased the family's pain.

"It's just sad," said Deborah Griffith, William Griffith's daughter. "It doesn't feel like it's been a year."

The Griffith family was the first among at least nine Upper Big Branch families to file wrongful death lawsuits against Massey Energy, and they also pursued -- but lost -- a federal court case aimed at forcing a more public investigation of the disaster.

William Griffith's son, William James Griffith, said he had moved back to the region from Georgia because he had decided to get a job mining coal -- until Upper Big Branch.

"My dad got killed," he said. "That's the reason I'm not a miner. After all this happened. I'll never set foot in one."

Ward reported from Charleston. Reach him at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702. Reach Gary Harki at gharki@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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