BECKLEY, W.VA. — At a somber memorial for 29 coal miners Sunday, President Obama said it was a moral imperative for the U.S. to prevent the sort of underground explosion that triggered the worst mine disaster in four decades.
The president said he had been flooded with messages since the April 5 tragedy at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine, with people imploring him, "Don't let this happen again."
"How can we fail them?" Obama told about 2,800 mourners at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center. "How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them? 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?"
He added: "Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy. To do what we must do, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners like they treat each other, like a family. Because we are all family and we are all Americans."
Obama's eulogy came toward the end of a service that was an emotional testament to the human toll of unsafe mining conditions. The cause of the blast that killed the miners is under investigation, but high levels of methane are suspected. The explosive gas had to be vented from the mine and neutralized with nitrogen to allow rescue and recovery teams to enter.
At Sunday's memorial, speakers described the fallen miners as NASCAR fans, hunters, fishermen, motorcycle enthusiasts - and football fans.
Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke before Obama, said, "They hated the way [college football] Coach [Rick] Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan."
The service opened with a video tribute to the dead. Gayle Manchin, wife of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, read the name of each victim, whose picture was displayed for a full minute on a pair of oversized screens. The audience stood and clapped as each name was called.
At the base of the stage was a row of 29 crosses. Outside the hall, posters of each man were arranged in a corridor. Attached were small cards penned by family and friends.
Carl Acord, 52, was shown proudly displaying a fish he had caught. Others were pictured standing and smiling, relaxing in chairs or on beds, or posing in their best suits.
A card written for Edward Dean Jones, 50, read, "I am a coal miner's daughter and granddaughter, and I love all miners for their work."
Another for Joe Marcum, 57: "I love you more than words can express. Our whole world and lives have been changed and will never be the same."
Those who attended cited a long, sad history of mining tragedies and called upon Obama to prevent more loss of life.
"I went to school with that boy right there," Teresa Perdue, 51, said before the service, pointing to a picture of James "Eddie" Mooney. Perdue said she had family who worked in the mines. When she got word of the explosion, she said, she nervously made calls to see whether her relatives were among the casualties.
"I'm sorry, this should not have happened," she said.
Asked about Obama's presence, Perdue said: "It means a lot, and I think he'll be the one who does something. I really do. I hope he does."
Sitting in the audience was Don L. Blankenship, head of Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine. The White House said the president did not speak with him Sunday but did meet privately with family members of the victims.
Massey has been cited repeatedly over the mine. In 2009 alone, the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued 48 orders that workers be removed from parts of the mine for "repeated significant and substantial violations" constituting a hazard.
Two weeks ago, after Obama received a scathing report about the mine, he described Massey as a safety violator that should be held accountable. The report said the mine's rate for such violations was nearly 19 times the national rate.
Massey, the nation's sixth-largest coal mining firm, says it has a better-than-average safety record and has received safety awards during Obama's tenure.
On Sunday, Biden said in his eulogy that the service wasn't the right moment to talk about how to improve mine safety. But he promised that day would come.
"Certainly, nobody should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood," Biden said. "But as the governor and Sen. [Jay] Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said, we'll have that conversation later."
For now, Obama wanted to celebrate "lives lived," not lost. He described the gritty reality of a miner's work.
"Most days, they would emerge from the dark mine squinting at the light. Most days, they would emerge sweaty and dirty and dusted with coal. Most days, they would come home," he said. "But not that day."