WHITESVILLE, W.Va. — A couple of parked cars pull off the roadside on Route 3 in Whitesville. An elderly gentleman and two children gaze into the black granite with the etched silhouettes of 29 men. Their belts and hats clearly identify their image as coal miners. Each etching on the long marker represents one of the men killed on April 5, 2010 at the Upper Big Branch mine not far up the road in the community of Montcoal. It’s a typical scene at the UBB Memorial.
An explosion during shift change that afternoon sent a firestorm throughout the catacombs of the sprawling underground operation and destroyed everything in its path. Investigators afterward would reveal pictures of steel track which hauled the mantrip twisted like pretzels, a testament to the force of the explosion. Families clung to hope for nearly a week as the search for the missing continued. Eventually their bodies were recovered, the investigation concluded, the mine was sold and closed, and today when you drive by the operation along Route 3 there’s almost no evidence it ever existed.
But in Whitesville, at the site which became a makeshift memorial during the days which followed the tragedy the event will be forever remembered with the Upper Big Branch Mine Memorial. The marker was erected two years later to replace a gazebo and hand crafted memorials and tributes in the small roadside park.
“On any given day, especially on the weekends when the weather is warm, you can drive by there and see people parked quite often,” said Sheila Combs, President and Founder of the Upper Big Branch Memorial. “I think it has become a place where you can come and not only heal, pay your respects, and honor the miners but also to learn a little bit.”
The comprehensive memorial tells the story of the disaster and pays tribute to the victims killed and those who risked their lives trying to save them, but also includes a considerable look at the history of coal mining in southern West Virginia.
“We like for people to take advantage of that and learn,” Combs explained. “From that learning, maybe develop a new respect for the coal industry and the coal miner that maybe they didn’t have before they stopped by.”
Although a wreath was placed at the memorial on the eve of the 7th anniversary, there are no formal tributes planned. Combs said that was by design.
“The whole purpose of the memorial plaza is to be there year-round and give people a place to go year-round,” she said. “We don’t plan anything in particular on the day of the memorial. We just hope people take advantage of it whenever they can and stop by.”
Third District Congressman Evan Jenkins (R-WV) released a statement on the occasion of the 7th anniversary.
“We pause to remember and honor the 29 fathers, sons, brothers and friends we lost seven years ago today. Every mining family prays for their loved one to come home at the end of each shift, and we pray for peace and strength for these 29 families. We must do all we can to ensure the safety of each and every miner, and we will never forget those we lost on this sad day.”
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin offered these words on the anniversary.
“Today our hearts are heavy with the sad memory of the tragic Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Seven years ago, 29 brave West Virginia miners went to work and never returned home to their loved ones. In the aftermath of that horrible day, through moments of hope and despair, all West Virginians and the nation grieved with the miners’ families.
“On this sad anniversary, we are reminded that no family or community should ever endure a preventable tragedy like the one at Upper Big Branch again. It is critical that we continue to improve our safety standards so that our miners’ lives are never in jeopardy and I remain absolutely and totally committed to the health and safety of every worker.”
“Every man or woman who goes to work in the morning should go with the knowledge that they will return home safely to their families at the end of the day. Gayle and I join all West Virginians in grieving the loss of our miners and honoring those miners’ memories as we pray for the continued strength for their families.”
Federal investigators would later conclude the explosion was linked to a buildup of methane gas and coal dust within the mine’s air and a spark near the face along the mine’s longwall operation ignited the blast.
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was eventually convicted of a federal charge of conspiring to violate mine safety laws over the accident. He’s nearing completion of a one year federal prison sentence for the conviction.