Some people see a coal miner walk out from underground — tired, wearing dust-covered overalls and steel-toed boots, carrying a hardhat and a dinner bucket — and a few flawed assumptions flash to mind: Uneducated. Dead-end job. Nowhere else to turn.

They’re wrong.

West Virginia coal miners are the backbone of this country, providing the power for the printing presses that put ink on this newsprint, the steel and machinery that built our country into the greatest industrial power in the world, the military that keeps us safe and free, the switches that turn on the lights in homes and businesses all over this country. West Virginia miners understand geology, mathematics and physics, the way a seam runs through the earth and how to safely extract its bounty to make our country stronger.

Above all, West Virginia miners are the salt of the earth — patriotic, God-fearing, family-oriented and proud of their hard work. In our state, we love being the people who this country relies on time and again, in times of war and times of peace, in times of prosperity and times of need.

At a time when our nation’s attention — and misplaced pity — will again focus on coal miners because of the first anniversary of the worst mining accident in 40 years, we West Virginians want the world to know that we are proud of our coal mining heritage — and future. As West Virginia’s former governor and now U.S. Senator, I want tell all Americans not only about our sacrifice but also our dedication to our shared future. The miners of West Virginia and their families are the heart and soul of West Virginia and an inspiration for me. We should all draw strength and courage from theirs.

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In remembering the Upper Big Branch disaster last year, my thoughts turn first to the families of the 29 miners who went to work on April 5, 2010, and didn’t come home.

In the days following the violent explosion — which remains under investigation today — I spent all day every day with families waiting to find out if their loved ones were alive or dead. Those families and I stayed together, at midnight, at dawn, through moments of hope and despair, on pins and needles in the early days and in shared grief when the full scope of the devastation hit as the rescuers didn’t find any more survivors. We prayed together before and after each briefing. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance, held each other and cried together. 

The unbreakable bonds of family became very clear in those days. One family alone lost three good men. I first told Charles and Linda Davis, the parents of Timmy and grandparents of Cory and Josh; along with Tommy, their son and Cory’s father, as well as Patty, their daughter and Josh’s mother, that all three had been found but had perished.

The first question I got from Tommy was: “Were they all together?”

“Yes,” I said.

Tommy replied: “I knew my brother Timmy would be taking care of the boys.”

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This was not my state’s first mining disaster, or mine. When I was a young man, my own family went through the tragedy of the Farmington No. 9 explosion in 1968. Seventy-eight miners were killed that day, and it left a searing impression on me.

Of course, we didn’t know right away how bad it would get. Everyone camped out at the company store for a few days waiting in the dark before authorities made the eventual decision to seal the mine — essentially entombing the fallen. In that disaster, I lost my uncle, my neighbor and some of my high school classmates. One of the strongest lessons that has stayed with me to this day is that waiting families should be systematically updated on the progress in the mine.

I know a minute seems like an hour, an hour seems like a day, a day seems like eternity. With consistent updates, the waiting becomes a little more bearable.

Since I become governor, in the three tragedies we went through — Sago and Aracoma in 2006, and finally Upper Big Branch — we briefed the families every two hours. It was a cycle — we received a briefing from authorities, then briefed the families, then the media. It was a cycle we continued until the fate of all the miners was known.

We’ve learned a lot in West Virginia. After disasters at Sago and Aracoma, we enacted more safety measures in my term as governor than the 30 years before. We’ve become a leader in safety, and what we’re implementing is being used across all types of mining all over the country. The bottom line is that, in our state, we won’t tolerate intimidation from any company that puts profits ahead of safety.

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This week, I spoke again to Tommy Davis, the man who lost his brother, nephew and son at Upper Big Branch. When I asked him what he’s doing these days, he gave me a simple answer:

“I’m back in the mines.”

Tommy is proud to be a miner. And while he — and all of us — will have much to mourn on Tuesday, we will also have the chance to honor the memories of the 29 dedicated men who died a year ago and their colleagues who continue their work with the respect and dignity.

Finally, Gayle and I — and all West Virginians — pray for continued strength and courage for the families who lost loved ones on this sad day.

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