April 05, 2011

Manchin Delivers Floor Speech Commemorating First Anniversary of Upper Big Branch Mine Tragedy

**Audio, Web Video and Pathfire Available**

Washington, D.C.—U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) this morning delivered a speech on the Senate floor commemorating the one-year anniversary of the tragedy at Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners.

This evening, Senator Manchin will join the families of the 29 miners at a ceremony marking the anniversary at the Whitesville Elementary School Gymnasium in Whitesville.

Below, please find the text of the speech, as prepared for delivery.

M. President, I rise today to mark the tragic occasion of the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.

A year ago today, 29 brave and patriotic men went underground to mine the coal that powers our great nation. They didn’t come back.

Our entire nation grieved with their families for their tremendous loss, and I rise today to honor their courage, sacrifice and the extraordinary strength of their families.

I want to say a few words about the proud men and women today who go unrecognized and make sure that our great nation can keep the lights on.

When some people see a coal miner walk out from underground, they see someone who is tired, wearing dust-covered overalls and steel-toed boots, carrying a hardhat and a dinner bucket – and they make a few flawed assumptions.

About the amount of education they may or may not have.

Or that they had nowhere else to turn and it was the only job left.

I want you to know: those assumptions are wrong.

West Virginia coal miners are the backbone of this country, providing the power for the lights in this chamber, the steel and machinery that built our country into the greatest industrial power in the world, the military that keeps us safe and free, the energy for homes and businesses all over this country.

West Virginia miners understand geology, mathematics and physics, the way a seam runs through the earth and how to safely extract its bounty to make our country stronger.

Above all, West Virginia miners are the salt of the earth – patriotic, God-fearing, family-oriented and proud of their hard work.

In our state, we’ve always done the heavy lifting. We are very proud of what we’ve contributed to this country time and again, in times of war and times of peace, in times of prosperity and times of need.

At a time when our nation’s attention – and misplaced pity – will again focus on coal miners because of the first anniversary of the worst mining accident in 40 years, we West Virginians want the world to know that we are proud of our coal mining heritage – and our future.

As West Virginia’s former governor and now U.S. Senator, I want to tell all Americans not only about our sacrifice but also our dedication to our shared future. The miners of West Virginia and their families are the heart and soul of West Virginia and an inspiration for me. We should all draw strength and courage from theirs.

Now, allow me to turn to the terrible day a year ago. In remembering the Upper Big Branch disaster, my thoughts turn first to the families of the 29 miners who went to work on April 5, 2010 and didn’t come home.

In the days following the violent explosion – which remains under investigation today – I spent all day every day with families waiting to find out if their loved ones were alive or dead.

Those families and I stayed together, at midnight, at dawn, through moments of hope and despair, on pins and needles in the early days and in shared grief when the full scope of the devastation hit us as the rescuers didn’t find any more survivors.

We prayed together before and after each briefing. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance, held each other and cried together. Restaurant owners donated food, WVU’s Coach Bob Huggins visited and one young man, Nick Helms – whose father was killed in the Sago mining disaster in 2006 – was on-hand to personally offer his moral support from his firsthand experience. 

In those days, the unbreakable bonds of family became very clear.

One family alone lost three good men. I first told Charles and Linda Davis, the parents of Timmy and grandparents of Cory and Josh; I told Tommy, their son and Cory’s father; and I also told Patty, their daughter and Josh’s mother, that all three men had been found…but had perished.

The first question I got from Tommy was: “Were they all together?”

And I said: “Yes.”

Tommy replied: “I knew my brother Timmy would be taking care of the boys.”


This was not my state’s first mining disaster, or mine. When I was a young man, my own family went through the tragedy of the Farmington No. 9 explosion in 1968. Seventy-eight miners were killed that day, and it left a searing impression on me.

Of course, we didn’t know right away how bad it would get. Everyone camped out at the company store for a few days waiting for any word before authorities made the eventual decision to seal the mine – essentially entombing the fallen.

In that disaster, I lost my uncle, my neighbor and some of my high school classmates. One of the strongest lessons that has stayed with me to this day is that waiting families should be systematically updated on the progress of the rescue operation.

I know firsthand that a minute seems like an hour, an hour seems like a day, a day seems like eternity. With consistent updates, the waiting becomes a little more bearable.

During my term as governor, in the three tragedies we went through – Sago and Aracoma in 2006, and finally Upper Big Branch – we briefed the families every two hours. It was a cycle – we received a briefing from authorities, then briefed the families, then the media. It was a cycle we continued until the fate of all our miners was known.

We’ve learned a lot in West Virginia. After disasters at Sago and Aracoma, we enacted more safety measures in my term as governor than the 30 years before. We’ve become a leader in safety, and what we’re implementing is being used across all types of mining all over the country.

The bottom line is that, in our state, we won’t tolerate intimidation from any person or company that puts profits ahead of safety.

And I truly believe that the single most important element in any mining operation is the men and women who work there every day.

Under my watch, we empowered those individual miners and their families to take more ownership and control over their own safety – without fear of retribution – with a 24-hour anonymous hotline to report unsafe conditions.

At the end of the day, though, the families, the people of West Virginia and all Americans need to know how this tragedy happened and what we must do to prevent anything this terrible from ever happening again.

We are still waiting for the results of the federal and state investigations, as well as an independent report from my special appointed investigator, J. Davitt McAteer, a West Virginia native and assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton.

We will look at the results of their investigations to determine what happened, make certain it doesn’t happen again and determine whether anyone – through intimidation or otherwise – put profits ahead of safety and that the people responsible are held accountable. 

In the meantime, I am cosponsoring a piece of legislation with Senator Jay Rockefeller – the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act of 2011.

It is designed to improve compliance with existing mine and occupational safety and health laws, empower workers to raise safety concerns, prevent future mine and other workplace tragedies and establish the rights of the families of victims of workplace accidents.

Last week, I spoke again to Tommy Davis, the man who lost his brother, nephew and son at Upper Big Branch. When I asked him what he’s doing these days, he gave me a simple answer:

He said: “I’m back in the mines.”

Tommy is proud to be a miner. And while he – and all of us – have much to mourn today, we also have the chance to honor the memories of the 29 dedicated men who died a year ago and their colleagues who continue their work with respect and dignity.

Finally, Gayle and I – and all West Virginians – pray for continued strength and courage for the families who lost loved ones on this sad day a year ago.

God bless them, God bless West Virginia and God continue to bless America.