BECKLEY, W.Va. – They lived and they died pursuing the American dream, working in dangerous conditions underground to help keep the lights on across the country, a somber President Barack Obama said Sunday in a eulogy to the workers who died in the worst mine accident in a generation.
The president told the families of the workers killed in the Upper Big Branch mine, about 35 miles from here, that the nation would honor their memories by improving safety in the mines.
“How can we fail them? How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them?” Obama said. “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?”
With workers’ families sitting near him – and the Massey Energy Co. executive who runs the mine sitting near the rear of the hall – Obama spoke broadly about the 29 workers killed in the explosion.
“In coveralls and hard-toe boots, a hardhat over their heads, they would sit quietly for their hourlong journey, 5 miles into a mountain, the only light the lamp on their caps,” Obama said.
Investigators have detected high levels of two potentially explosive gases inside the mine, and it could be a month before investigators can get inside to determine what caused the April 5 blast. Federal regulators have identified highly explosive methane gas, coal dust or a mixture of the two as the likely cause of the blast, but the ignition source is unknown.
The explosion will be the subject of a Senate hearing on Tuesday, with the nation’s top mine safety official expected to testify.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking before Obama, called miners “the spine of this nation” and “roughneck angels.” He said the time would come to account for the safety conditions that led to the disaster.
“As a community, and as a nation, we would compound tragedy if we let life go on unchanged,” he said. “Certainly, no one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood.”