UBB memorial meant to forever remember
Family and friends look at the memorial after the reveal.
July 29, 2012 ·
It’s been more than two years since an explosion ripped through a Raleigh County mine and killed 29 West Virginia coal miners at the Upper Big Branch. A miner’s memorial, meant to stand forever, memorializes the lives lost.
Traffic flowed steadily into the small town of Whitesville before the ceremony. The Upper Big Branch Monument sits along route three, where one lane of traffic was blocked during a formal dedication ceremony.
Visitors battled the rain until the clouds moved back for the ceremony. Emotions overflowed from several families as members of mine rescue teams from across the country pulled back the tarp to reveal the towering structure.
The 48-feet-long, 8-feet-tall monument is made of black granite, to represent coal. The top mimics an Appalachian Mountain Range. The towering structure is mostly polished except for silhouettes of 29 men. While several of the victims’ families wept, the rain also created a weeping effect in the shadows of the coal miners.
“This is not a tombstone,” designer Rob Dinsmore said. “This site is not a graveyard. This is an opportunity to learn not only about the rich heritage and long history of the coal industry in the state of West Virginia."
"It’s an opportunity to celebrate celebrate the natural beauty of this state and the great people who call it home. It’s an opportunity to remember. Remember the 29 men we lost April 5, 2010 but we’re also going to remember all of the coal miners that have sacrifices so much to keep their families fed this state a live and the lights of so many turned on. So ask you to please remember this is not a tombstone.”
The families of the victims sit in reserved seats surrounded by other community members, friends, and media outlets.
“It makes me feel real good," Gary Quarles said. "The people that have put this together I want to thank them, I think they’ve done a real good job."
Gary Quarles lost his son Gary Wayne Quarles.
“If we come down this way I’m sure we’ll stop every time and just look at it and walk around it," he said. "It makes me feel pretty good about what the people have done people have put so much money into it and the time that people have put in and I really appreciate what they’ve done. It’s really nice.”
Michelle McKinney lost her father Benny Willingham.
“It’s a sad moment but a happy one also,” she said. “Nothing will ever give us closure. We shouldn’t be here. It was uncalled for but it’s happened and I know he would want us to go on but it’s hard. It’s harder today than it has been the whole time.”
Clay Mullins lost his brother Rex Mullins.
“This is good it’s respectful for the men the community and everybody‘s giving them respect and honoring them but it’s not going to give us no closure,” he said.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have closure but I think if we could get some laws passed that we could see that these 29 men did not die in vain if we can get some legislation passed to help the men and women that’s working now, that would give me some closure and to see someone go to jail for what happened.”
Mullins traveled with Gary Quarles and some other families to Washington D.C. to try and convince lawmakers to pass sweeping mine safety legislation.
"Today’s coal miners need to be protected so whatever thing is put in the law is a help and has got to help them," Quarles said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller was among several politicians to speak at the memorial service. Last week the senator introduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act for the third time.
"In this kind of a tragedy people have to be punished," Rockefeller said. "The miners were. The miners didn’t always have the freedom to keep the mine as safety as they wanted to that has to change."
This bill includes new provisions meant to address specific problems revealed after UBB such as "prohibiting mine operators from keeping two sets of safety books, strict penalties for unsafe ventilation changes, and limiting miners’ exposure dust to prevent black lung disease." More than 70 percent of the victims tested at UBB had signs of black lung disease.
Just as Sen. Rockefeller says he will continue to introduce sweeping legislation until it’s passed, Gary Quarles plans to push for new laws so his son’s death is not in vain.
"I’m not willing to give up," Quarles said. "I’m about like the Dixie Chicks song you know I’m not willing to make nice and I’m not ready to back down."