SUNDIAL, W.Va. -- The news trucks traveled up and down the Coal River Valley last week, past homes and churches, past purple patches of redbud trees, past scores of signs with a single message: Pray for our miners.
They were headed to or from Marsh Fork Elementary School. Students were on spring break, but reporters sat in their small seats.
There, at the school on W.Va. 3, they used laptop computers to send stories and pictures to audiences around the world. A horrific explosion had rocked the Upper Big Branch Mine, a few miles away.
It wasn't the first time that the nation's eyes were focused on the communities along this route. Over the past year, the practice of mountaintop removal here has gained national attention from protesters, scientists and the Obama administration.
Now, the nation was seeing the dark side of underground mining. Here, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years has killed 29 miners.
Some say it doesn't have to be this way.
"Enough is enough," said Davitt McAteer, former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. "The only thing that is inevitable about mine disasters is that inevitably, we find that disasters are caused by companies' failure to comply with the laws and good safety practices."
Some companies have adapted to both environmental and safety regulations, he said. Others haven't.
"There is a sense, generally speaking, that coal is a dirty field, that coal is a bad field, that coal is a negative source of energy. And this accident confirms that for the bulk of the population," McAteer said. "If you link that with the fact that the industry also is taking a stand in the area of environmental considerations, that is a dead end-approach, then you suggest that the coal industry is on ... an unsustainable course that will lose public support."
Disasters like Upper Big Branch are often the only times when many Americans see what coal miners really do, said Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor to "Rolling Stone" magazine and author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future," about the nation's reliance on coal.
"These people who work in coal mines are so invisible to the rest of the world all the time," he said. "No one sees their faces. No one has any gratitude for the fact that coal keeps half the lights on."
Coal produces a little less than half of the nation's electricity.
"This tragedy, unlike others, has brought together a lot of things," Goodell said. "It's bringing together a lot of these questions about how we mine and burn coal in a way that others mining disasters haven't."
Much of that is because of media coverage of Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship, whom Goodell calls "an almost cartoonish figure."
"He's been the sort of epicenter of this fight over lots of aspects over how we mine and burn coal -- not just miner safety, but mountaintop removal and, of course, greenhouse gas emissions," Goodell said.
Massey's safety record has come under scrutiny in the past week. In an interview with The Associated Press after the disaster, Blankenship defended that record.
"I think that I've proven that we run safer coal mines -- you know, most of the time -- and accidents sometimes happen. We've got to figure out what happened here," he said.
Some in the industry, such as CONSOL Energy president J. Brett Harvey, have said the only acceptable amount of accidents is none.