By Michael D. Shear
Sunday, April 25, 2010; 8:37 PM
BECKLEY, W.VA. -- President Obama eulogized the 29 miners who died in an explosion here this month, joining a community in mourning to say goodbye, to urge families to remember those who were lost, and to carry on.
Obama sat grim-faced as the West Virginia families embraced their lost relatives. In his eulogy, he sought to offer the understanding and sympathy of the country for the lives they had lost.
"Most days, they would emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light," he said Sunday evening to the hundreds gathered in the convention center in Beckley. "Most days, they would emerge, sweaty, and dirty and dusted from coal. Most days, they would come home. But not that day."
One by one, Obama read the names of the 29 miners. To the families in front of him, he suggested seeking "the face of God, who quiets our troubled minds, mends our broken hearts and eases our mourning souls."
The president had already expressed his anger about what he called the failures that led to the blast, and has pledged federal action to reveal the causes of the accident and safeguard other mines.
"How can we fail them?" he asked the hundreds assembled in what had once been the Beckley armory. "How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them?
"Our task here on Earth," he said, "is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy."
Speaking before Obama, Vice President Biden hinted at the long debate to come about how to make mining safer.
"As a community and a nation, we could compound tragedy if we let life go on unchanged," he said. "Certainly, no one should have to sacrifice his life for his livelihood."
Biden promised that the nation will "have that conversation later."
The attention from the White House capped an emotional four-hour ceremony during which the family members slowly entered the convention center with helmets that they lovingly placed on 29 white crosses that stood on the stage.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III (D) acknowledged receiving the prayers of a nation, saying that "we feel your sympathy and your love, here in the Mountain State."
In his eulogy, Obama marveled at the strength of the Beckley community, of the bonds that he said inspired the song "Lean on Me," what he called "an anthem of friendship, an anthem of community, of coming together."
"I've seen it myself, the strength of that community," Obama said. "In the days following the disaster, e-mails and letters poured into the White House. Postmarked from different places, they often begin the same way: 'I am proud to be from a family of miners,' 'I am the son of a coal miner,' 'I am proud to be a coal miner's daughter.' "
At the end of the memorial, the headlamps of the helmets were turned on, one by one, to symbolize what Manchin said were the light that would remain even after the miners are gone.