BECKLEY, W.Va. — They lived and they died pursuing the American dream, working in dangerous conditions underground to help keep the lights on across the country, a somber President Barack Obama said Sunday in a eulogy to the workers who died in the worst mine accident in a generation.
The president told the families of the workers killed in the Upper Big Branch mine, about 35 miles from here, that the nation would honor their memories by improving safety in the mines.
"How can we fail them? How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them?" he said. "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?"
With workers' families sitting near him — and the Massey Energy Co. executive who runs the mine sitting near the rear of the hall — Obama spoke broadly about the 29 workers killed in the explosion on April 5.
"In coveralls and hard-toe boots, a hardhat over their heads, they would sit quietly for their hourlong journey, 5 miles into a mountain, the only light the lamp on their caps, or the glow from the mantrip they rode in," he said.
"Most days, they would emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they would emerge, sweaty, dirty, dusted with coal. Most days, they would come home. Most days, but not that day."
Investigators have detected high levels of two potentially explosive gases inside the mine, and it could be a month before investigators can get inside to determine what caused the blast. Federal regulators have identified highly explosive methane gas, coal dust or a mixture of the two as the likely cause of the blast, but the ignition source is unknown.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking before Obama, called miners "the spine of this nation" and "roughneck angels." He said the time would come to account for the safety conditions that led to the disaster.
"As a community, and as a nation, we would compound tragedy if we let life go on unchanged," he said. "Certainly, no one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood."
Obama and Biden both noted that the mining industry is more than a source of jobs in coal country — it's a source of energy for the entire nation.
"The men we remember here today went into the darkness so we could have light," Biden said. "It was dangerous work and they knew it. But they never flinched."
Obama linked the West Virginia deaths with the challenges Americans face from coast to coast amid a sour economy.
"All that hard work. All that hardship. All the time spent underground. It was all for the families. It was all for you," Obama said. "For a car in the driveway. For a roof overhead. For a chance to give their kids opportunities that they would never know, and enjoy retirement with their spouses. It was all in the hopes of something better.
"So these miners lived — as they died — in pursuit of the American dream."
Before the somber memorial service, Obama and Biden met privately with the families of the 29 people killed in the explosion.
Gov. Joe Manchin also promised action to improve mine safety. "It takes brave men to work below the surface," he said. "I pledge to you: Your loved ones will not have died in vain."
Many people who gathered for the service wore black ribbons with gold shovels and pick axes; some wore coal miners' reflective clothing. Don Blankenship, chief executive of Massey Energy, mingled with the crowd before taking his seat near the back in the Beckley-Raleigh Convention Center.
Jonathan Mounts of Iaeger, who was on a rescue team that pulled 11 bodies out of the Upper Big Branch mine, said he liked Obama's speech. "He understands our livelihood and our brotherhood," he said. "We've got to work to support the nation."
MAN ARRESTED: Police in Asheville, N.C., arrested an Ohio man on Sunday after authorities spotted him with a handgun in an airport parking lot as President Barack Obama's plane was departing the state after he and his family vacationed there over the weekend. Joseph McVey, 23, was charged with going armed in terror of the public, a misdemeanor. Security was heightened because of Obama's visit. McVey was nowhere near Air Force One, and why he was in the area with a gun was unclear.