CHARLESTON, WV (WVNS) — Ten years has passed since the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in Whitesville, West Virginia. April 5, 2020, marked the tenth anniversary of the disaster that claimed the lives of 29 miners.
But, to Jeanie Sanger, it feels like that tragic day was yesterday.
“We were eating dinner and my husband’s dad called and said ‘there’s been an explosion,'” Sanger recalled. “I didn’t remember, but my husband remembered that that was the mine that my brother worked at.”
Her older brother Benny Willingham was one of the victims killed when an explosion blasted through nearly two miles of tunnels at the Massey Energy underground operation. On Sunday, April 5, 2020, they joined other families and Raleigh County officials for an annual ceremony at the UBB memorial marker in Beckley led by West Virginia Delegate Mick Bates.
“We wanted to try and do something very special for the tenth anniversary and then of course with all the things that have happened in the world and locally here it made it impossible to have a large event,” Bates added.
Despite the shift in plans, the service was streamed on social media by the Beckley Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce for the community to see.
For families like Jeanie’s, it is reassuring to see that her brother and his comrades will never be forgotten in West Virginia – grateful to be able to visit his silhouette as it stands among 28 others at a monument in Whitesville or see their pictures and personal belongings that sit at an intimate roadside tribute near the old site.
“It’s hard because it brings it all back, fresh and new, but I’m so glad they remember him,” Sanger said.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), who was the governor at the time of the tragedy, released the following statement on Sunday:
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of those we lost ten years ago when 29 brave West Virginia coal miners were killed in the UBB mine disaster.
Today, as we remember them ten years later, our hearts are heavy with the sad memory of that unspeakable tragedy. My heart goes out to their families who lost their loved ones during that terrible disaster.
This day reminds us that we must always put safety first. Fighting for the safety and security of our miners has always been a top priority for me as Governor and now as your Senator. No family or community should never have to endure an avoidable tragedy like the UBB mine disaster.
Our hearts are still broken ten years later and Gayle and I join all West Virginians in honoring those miners and never forgetting the families they left behind.”U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D – WV)