Mourning mine families share stories and presidential solace

President Obama eulogizes 29 miners killed in an explosion in Beckley, W.Va., joining a community in mourning to say goodbye, to urge families to remember those who were lost, and to carry on.
By David A. Fahrenthold and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 26, 2010

BECKLEY, W.VA. -- They sat in the second and third rows Sunday, as President Obama called coal miners the embodiment of the American work ethic. A family that has become the face of West Virginia's grieving by simple, heartbreaking math.

Five men of the Davis family went into the Upper Big Branch mine April 5.

Two came back.

On Sunday, Obama stood at the front of a small arena here and eulogized 29 men who died in an explosion at the mine, the worst U.S. mining accident since 1970. "These miners lived as they died," Obama said. "In pursuit of the American dream."

But even the president, powerful as he is, could be only a guest star in the numb, funny, fitful story of West Virginia's coal fields staggering back to life. For the Davises, the region's worst-hit family, he was only a solemn pause.

For their family, moving on has meant memorial tattoos, inked-on miners crawling across forearms. It has meant retelling stories about snack-cake binges and coal-mine jokes and killing Scarface the bear -- about remembering the dead as they were, alive and mischievous.

And it has meant the question that inevitably follows a mine accident here.

Two Davis men came out of a mine alive.

Would they go back to work in another one?

"If I get my emotions under control, maybe," said Tommy Davis, 42, one of the two. Two days before the memorial, he was talking on the front porch of his home in Dawes, W.Va., near a memorial to his son Cory, 20. His son's reflective-striped work shirt swung from a pole in the yard, like a flag at half staff. "I don't know if I can."

Sunday's memorial service, in a dome-shaped convention center with old basketball jerseys hanging in the halls, followed the rituals of coal country in mourning.

Families approached the stage one at a time, laying a miner's helmet atop one of 29 white crosses. A soloist sang a hymn about a widow finding her husband's coal-smudged Bible. The whole crowd stood and whooped and clapped for the rescue crews who had tried, but failed, to find the 29 alive.

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