Remarks by the President and Vice President at Memorial Service for Upper Big Branch Miners
5:20 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Governor; the families of the miners that we lost, and the President and I had the pleasure to meet.
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 -- serving with him so many years. (Applause.) His incredible pride in his state and his miners is only matched by his loyalty. And it is 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 fiancés. They loved hunting, fishing, riding horses and four-wheelers. They hated the way Coach Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan. (Applause.) 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 -- 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. (Applause.) And, ladies and gentlemen, 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. (Applause.)
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? (Applause.)
You know, folks, there is a famous headstone in an Irish cemetery in Ireland, and 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 heartache 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. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: To all the families who loved so deeply the miners we’ve lost; to all who called them friends, worked alongside them in the mines, or knew them as neighbors, in Montcoal and 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're 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. And 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 -- (applause) -- who quiets our troubled minds, 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 a.m., 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 a 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 so often we take for granted: the electricity that lights up a 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. (Applause.)
And most days they’d emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they’d emerge, sweaty and dirty and dusted from coal. Most days, they’d come home. But not that day.
These men -– these husbands, fathers, grandfathers, brothers sons, uncles, nephews -– they did not take on their job unaware of the perils. Some of them had already been injured; some of them had seen a friend get hurt. So they understood there were risks. And 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 okay. 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 the families. It was all for you. For a car in the driveway, a roof overhead. For a chance to give their kids opportunities that they would never know, 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, relaxing together, watching Mountaineers football or basketball together, spending days off together, hunting or fishing. They may not have always 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 that’s 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 and leaning on one another.
I’ve seen it, the strength of that community. In the days that followed the disaster, emails 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.” (Applause.) They were always proud, and they asked me to keep our miners in my thoughts, in my prayers. Never forget, they say, miners keep America’s lights on. (Applause.) And then in these letters, they make a simple plea: Don’t let this happen again. (Applause.) 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 must do, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground -- (applause) -- to treat our miners like they treat each other -- like a family. (Applause.) Because we are all family and we are all Americans. (Applause.) 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 that comes to mind, 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. (Applause.) God bless their families. God bless West Virginia. (Applause.) And God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)
END 5:38 P.M. EDT