- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. | Dozens of mines across three states were idled Tuesday as West Virginia honored 29 coal miners who died in an explosion a year ago.

Massey Energy Co, which owns the Upper Big Branch Mine where the men died, shut down production at its other Appalachian sites as politicians, miners and family members turned out for a series of commemorations of the nation’s worst coalfield disaster since 1970. Two miners survived the blast.

“We’re here today to observe the sacrifice of 29 men,” acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said after laying a wreath at the state coal miners’ memorial on the Capitol grounds. The wreath of yellow roses was adorned with a black banner saying, “From a grateful people.”

“Keep the miners’ families in our prayers as we go through the rest of the day,” Mr. Tomblin said.

The small service was the first in a series of public and private events marking the first anniversary of the explosion. Others were held at a Beckley church and an elementary school some eight miles from the site of the blast.

A wreath and a list of the 29 miners who died at the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion were placed at the state coal miners' memorial in Charleston, W.Va., on the first anniversary of the explosion. (Associated Press)
A wreath and a list of the 29 miners who died at ... more >

“We’re a small community and so everybody knew somebody who was involved directly or indirectly,” said Mick Bates, who was helping organize the public memorial in Beckley. They were asking people to wear stripes on their clothing to mimic the distinctive safety reflective tape miners have on while underground.

Mr. Tomblin asked churches across the state to ring their bells 29 times at the estimated time of the explosion. Regulators and Massey have said the explosion occurred at 3:02 p.m.

Massey also had a moment of silence besides the safety stand down at 92 underground coal-producing sections. Massey operates mines in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.

The company, central Appalachia’s largest coal producer, was the only one expected to stop production Tuesday, according to the West Virginia Coal Association.

One year later, state and federal regulators are no closer to releasing the final determined cause of the blast deep inside the mine. Federal prosecutors are also investigating.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has said the explosion occurred when methane gas was ignited. The agency theorizes highly explosive coal dust that had been allowed to accumulate in the mine mixed with the methane to create a blast so powerful it turned corners and rounded a 1,000-foot-wide block of coal, packing the power to kill men more than a mile away.

Massey denies any wrongdoing, blaming a sudden inundation of natural gas that overwhelmed all safety systems.

“The company remains fully committed to a thorough and comprehensive investigation that seeks to identify the primary causes of the explosion and provide answers to the UBB families and the communities we serve in Central Appalachia,” Virginia-based Massey said Monday.

Federal officials say they hope to provide more insight into the explosion during a public meeting set for June 29.