Sago mine disaster memorial, 2006.
"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?"--President Barack Obama, Beckley, West Virginia, April 25, 2010
A little over four years ago, I traveled to Buckhannon, West Virginia to attend a memorial service for the miners who lost their lives in the Sago mine disaster. I remember wishing at the time that I'd never have the occasion to attend another.
Many of us were hopeful that that disaster and the Massey Aracoma mine fire that killed two miners in Logan County shortly thereafter would lead to mine safety reforms and a climate of strict enforcement that would make such things a painful memory of another era.
To be fair, some good reforms came from the responses to those deaths. But as many have noted, these were aimed at helping people survive mining accidents rather than preventing them altogether. Some recommendations made at the time were never acted upon. And some employers don't seem to pay a lot of attention to the laws and rules on the books while the agencies responsible for safety seem to lack the power to order the immediate shutdown of unsafe mines.
So it was I made my way along with thousands of others to attend another memorial for the 29 miners who died in Massey's Upper Big Branch mine. The service was dignified and orderly. It featured music, prayers, scripture readings and brief speeches by President Obama, Vice President Biden, Senator Rockefeller, Congressman Rahall, Governor Manchin and others.
There seemed to be an agreement among all who spoke that this day was to honor those who died and their loved ones. Politics seemed to be set aside, to the extent possible anyway, for this time. Anger and outrage, too, while present just beneath the surface, were kept in check for another time.
But this disaster demands a thorough investigation, one that leaves no stone unturned. It demands swift, harsh and unerring justice for any negligence or safety shortcuts discovered. It may well demand additional mine safety legislation and certainly demands much stricter enforcement of safety regulations.
I won't pretend to speak for those who came Sunday or for those who were there in spirit. But I do think it's safe to say that we don't want to have to do anything like this ever again.