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By Peter Nicholas
Tribune Washington Bureau
BECKLEY, W.Va. - At a somber memorial for 29 coal miners Sunday, President Barack Obama said it is a moral imperative for the United States to prevent the sort of underground explosion that triggered the worst mine disaster in four decades.
The president said he has been flooded with messages since the April 5 tragedy at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine, with people imploring him: "Don't let this happen again."
"How can we fail them?" Obama told about 2,800 mourners at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center. "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?"
He added: "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. To treat our miners like they treat each other, like a family. Because we are all family and we are all Americans."
Obama's eulogy came toward the end of a service that was an emotional testament to the human toll of unsafe mining conditions. The cause of the blast that killed the miners is still under investigation, but high levels of methane are suspected. The explosive gas had to be vented from the mine and neutralized with nitrogen to allow rescue and recovery teams to enter.
At Sunday's memorial, speakers described the fallen miners as NASCAR fans, hunters, fishermen, fiances, motorcycle enthusiasts - and football fans.
Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke before Obama, said, "They hated the way 1/8college football3/8 Coach 1/8Rick3/8 Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan."
The service opened with a video tribute to the dead. Gayle Manchin, wife of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, read the name of each victim, whose picture was displayed for a full minute on a pair of oversized screens. The audience stood and clapped as each name was called.
At the base of the stage was a row of 29 crosses. Outside the hall, posters of each man were arranged in a corridor. Attached were small cards penned by family and friends.
Carl Acord, 52, was shown proudly displaying a fish he had caught. Others were pictured standing and smiling, relaxing in chairs or on beds, or posing in their best suits.
A card written for Edward Dean Jones, 50, read: "I am a coal miner's daughter and granddaughter, and I love all miners for their work."
Another for Joe Marcum, 57: "I love you more than words can express. Our whole world and lives have been changed and will never be the same."