Bells, tears mark year since mine blast killed 29 - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Bells, tears mark year since mine blast killed 29

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A wreath and a list of the 29 miners who died at the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion are placed at the state coal miners' memorial on the first anniversary of the explosion Tuesday, April 5, 2011 in Charleston, W. Va. A wreath and a list of the 29 miners who died at the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion are placed at the state coal miners' memorial on the first anniversary of the explosion Tuesday, April 5, 2011 in Charleston, W. Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Church bells pealed across West Virginia for 29 fallen coal miners as countless tears fell Tuesday and dozens of coal mines stood silent at 3 p.m., roughly the moment when a powerful blast tore through the Upper Big Branch Mine one year ago.

Massey Energy Co., owner of the vast underground mine where the men died in the worst coalfield disaster since 1970, halted production at mines in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. The families and friends of the victims, other miners and politicians gathered for a series of ceremonies planned through the day and well into the night.

Two miners survived the blast, which remains the target of investigations by regulators and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The day began with acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin solemnly laying a wreath of yellow roses adorned with a black ribbon at a memorial to the state's coal miners on the Capitol grounds. The ribbon read: "From a grateful people."

"We're here today to observe the sacrifice of 29 men," Tomblin told about 70 people who had gathered for the wreath-laying. "Keep the miners' families in our prayers as we go through the rest of the day.

Alongside the wreath in a plastic sleeve was a child's hand-drawn card depicting a cross, shovel and pick, and the words "God bless our fallen miners." Attached was a gift, a plastic cube containing a tiny yellow toy backhoe.

The small service was the first in a series of public and private events marking the first anniversary of the explosion. Others began later in the day at a Beckley church while an evening service was planned at an elementary school about eight miles from the site of the tragedy.

Students at West Virginia University launched a Faces of the Mine web site that offered profiles of the miners and planned live streaming video of the evening service at Whitesville Elementary School near the mine in Montcoal in the state's southern coalfields.

At First Christian Church in Beckley, candles were wrapped with the reflective orange striping that miners wear underground on their navy blue work clothes. Tiny lapel ribbons in the same orange and silver were handed out to about 150 people who gathered for a brief service with prayers and song, but no speeches. Nearly all wore either a miner's shirt or jacket, or a ball cap bearing the number 29.

Tomblin asked churches across the state to ring their bells 29 times about the time of explosion a year ago. Regulators and Massey have said the explosion occurred at 3:02 p.m. Massey, central Appalachia's largest coal producer, organized a moment of silence and a safety stand down at 92 underground coal-producing sections.

Terry Ellison of Beckley lit 29 candles, a bell tolling each time, in honor of her brother, 40-year-old Steven "Smiley" Harrah of Cool Ridge. Harrah was killed as he was ending his shift and leaving the mine with the others.

"It's just like yesterday for us, and it will never get better. We'll just learn how to cope with it," Ellison said, urging people to "remember the good men they were."

Jeanie Sanger paid tribute to her brother, Benny Willingham of Corinne, who at 61 was just five weeks away from retirement. He had been a miner for 30 years and spent the last 17 of those working for Massey.

The investigation and constant media coverage keep the tragedy alive, she said.

"As public as this has been, it's kept it really fresh in your mind," she said. "It has been brought up every day."

State and federal regulators are no closer to releasing the final determined cause of the blast deep inside the mine. Federal prosecutors are also investigating.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has said the explosion occurred when methane gas was ignited. The agency theorizes highly explosive coal dust that had been allowed to accumulate in the mine mixed with the methane to create a blast so powerful it turned corners and rounded a 1,000-foot-wide block of coal, packing the power to kill men more than a mile away.

Massey denies any wrongdoing, blaming a sudden inundation of natural gas that overwhelmed all safety systems.

"The company remains fully committed to a thorough and comprehensive investigation that seeks to identify the primary causes of the explosion and provide answers to the UBB families and the communities we serve in Central Appalachia," Massey said in a statement.

Federal officials say they hope to provide more insight into the explosion during a public meeting set for June 29.

Previous mine disasters in West Virginia, including the Sago mine explosion that killed 12 men in January 2006, spurred legislation aimed at making coal mining safer. Upper Big Branch hasn't followed the pattern. Mining legislation stalled in Congress and was never seriously contemplated in West Virginia. Regulators have toughened some rules, particularly one requiring mines to do more to prevent coal dust explosions, but industry considers them punitive measures.


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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