Emotions pour out at service for miners killed in explosion

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BECKLEY, W.Va. -- At first, Travis Holdren couldn't talk about the explosion that nearly knocked him out of a mine and stole 29 of his friends.

Twenty days after the fierce blast at the Upper Big Branch mine, he still has ringing in his ears and pain in his heart.

"He was really emotional," said his mother, Peggy. "I told him we should start going to some memorial services where it's OK to cry."

He did cry Sunday, as photos of his fallen brothers glowed on a pair of giant screens before him -- one after another after another.

Jason Atkins. Carl "Pee Wee" Acord. Kenneth Chapman Sr. Joshua Scott Napper.

Men with whom Mr. Holdren worked and trained, but knew by nicknames like "Cuz" and "Griff" and "Boone."

Mr. Holdren, almost hidden in the crowded convention center save for the glint of his reflective orange mining stripes, dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief.

"I knew them all," he said after the three-hour service, full of prayer and pleas that a catastrophe like the one at Upper Big Branch never happen again.

The April 5 underground explosion that thrust this coal community onto the national map on Sunday united miners and families, clergy and President Barack Obama under the dome of the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center.

Outside, groups of mine rescuers who fought against deadly gases to check for survivors in Upper Big Branch reunited and posed for photographs, then paused to kiss their wives. They pinned black ribbons to their matching blue shirts and said they had come to support the miners' families.

Relatives and friends donned T-shirts they designed to honor the men. Peering out from the back of Gary Coburn's T-shirt was a picture of his nephew, Rick Lane, who died in Upper Big Branch. In the picture, Mr. Lane, in mining overalls, is smiling, as he always seemed to.

"He was the best man you'd ever meet," his uncle said.

Inside the convention center, perceptive event planners left pocket-sized packets of tissues on some of the seats. As the state's first lady, Gayle Manchin, listed the fallen miners, the names drew applause, as did their photographs from happier days of fishing and hunting and dancing with their wives.

For a tragedy of its magnitude, the service was intimate.

Gatherers heard from pastors who told them to find peace through faith, from a middle school choir whose melodies soothed, from a tearful state police chaplain who spoke of their strength and finally from Mr. Obama, who said what most were surely thinking: "Don't let this happen again."

Mourners paused to embrace as they departed under a setting sun. Among them was Regina O'Neal of Glen Jean, whose brother was killed six months ago in a different mining accident. She sympathized with the families and warned of the painful road that lies ahead of them, one that, for her, is still dotted with unanswered questions.

"My goodness, how many tissues did I go through?" Ms. O'Neal said. "But I liked the part when Obama said he's going to make sure there's better laws. He's going to protect these men."

Tammy Gobble, a kindergarten teacher at Marsh Fork Elementary, taught miner Gary Quarles when he was a third grader, and later his kids. For five agonizing days she waited at Marsh Fork, where reporters were stationed, to learn whether any of the men had survived. In a moment that drew the attention of news cameras, she collapsed in the governor's arms when she learned at a midnight news conference that none had.

On Sunday, tears welled in her eyes, her grief still raw.

"Look at me," she said. "It's still there. It's still there."

Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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