WHITESVILLE, W.Va. — April 5, 2010 started like any other normal day for many who worked in the coal mines of southern West Virginia. However, during the shift change an event occurred deep in the earth which has left a deep scar on the region and on the state of West Virginia which is never expected to fully heal.
An explosion at the longwall face of the Upper Big Branch mine sent a fireball rocketing through the grid of entries and catacombs of the sprawling underground labyrinth near the community of Montcoal. Survivors on their way out at the end of the shift told stories of a massive rush of air at their backs as they made their way toward the surface.
Deep inside the mountain, the blast, fueled by excessive coal dust hanging in the air, reached every corner of the mine. Twenty-nine workers were instantly killed, but their fate wouldn’t be known for several more days. Mine rescue teams worked slowly passed wrecked machinery, twisted steel rails, and the blackened roof and rib of the mine in desperate hopes of finding survivors. In the end, all were accounted for and none made it out alive.
During the ordeal, as the world’s media concentrated on this tiny West Virginia community, grieving families leaned on one another. Immediate family of the miners were sequestered at the mine’s office along Route 3, well away from the television cameras. A roadside park in Whitesville, which was nothing more than a community gazebo, became a makeshift memorial. More and more mementos, candles, and tributes were placed there while everyone clung to hope and waited for word.
Today, nine-years later, it’s the site of a permanent, granite marker honoring the 29 souls lost that day. The monument features all 29 figures staged in a group silhouette.
“We hope it has provided a place for people to come and remember and honor not only those killed in the UBB disaster, but all coal miners that have lost their life,” said Sheila Combs, President and Founder of the Upper Big Branch Mine Memorial Group.
The mine itself is gone. So is the owner and operator, Massey Energy. The portals were closed and the extensive system of belts, buildings, and treatment facilities near the entrance were dismantled and hauled away not long after the mine closed. A drive down Route 3 today reveals almost no evidence of where the facility once stood.
“There is a memorial beside the road up there, it’s 29 helmets,” said Combs. “If you didn’t know it was there, you probably wouldn’t realize it, but for people who are from here, they know it was there and they remember.”
Many will remember this week on the 9th anniversary. Combs said the memorial doesn’t have formal ceremonies on the anniversary, honoring the desires of loved ones who wanted it that way.
“We have avoided specific events. There are family members and other people who like to come when nobody else is there,” she explained. “Out of respect for everybody’s feelings it’s just an open invitation.”
Combs said it’s not uncommon to see visitors at the memorial at all hours of the day and night. Many are there trying to make peace with their grief and loss. For Combs, such healing is why the monument stands today.