By Sam Youngman - 04/25/10 09:28 PM EDT
President Barack Obama told the families of 29 miners killed this month that the task for those left behind is “to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy.”
Obama, in Beckley, W.Va., on Sunday, delivered the eulogy at a memorial service for the miners killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine earlier this month.
"How can we fail them? How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them?" Obama said. "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?"
Obama listed the names of the 29 killed, and he said the nation has "been mourning with you throughout these difficult days."
"Our hearts ache," Obama said.
The president said that pursuing tougher safety standards is one way he and lawmakers can honor the dead.
"We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost," Obama said. "They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy. To do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners the way they treat each other – like family. For we are all family. We are Americans."
The president made these remarks in a state that voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential race and that also favored Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary. Obama made the trip after meeting and praying with Rev. Billy Graham in North Carolina, where the president enjoyed a brief vacation.
Obama has promised a wide-ranging investigation of the accident, and more broadly said the administration would work with Congress to boost enforcement of laws and reform them. Obama also has said the Labor Department would streamline rules that allow regulators to take action against mines with patterns of safety problems.
The president remembered the victims as miners who worked a dangerous job to provide for their families.
“All the hard work. All the hardship. All the time spent underground. It was all for their families,” Obama said. “For a car in the driveway. For a roof overhead. For a chance to give their kids opportunities they never knew; and enjoy retirement with their wives. It was all in the hopes of something better. These miners lived – as they died – in pursuit of the American dream.”
Obama hailed the community spirit that came together after the tragedy, and he spoke of letters he received from miners and miners' families after the explosion.
"They ask me to keep our miners in my thoughts," Obama said. "Never forget, they say, miners keep America’s lights on. Then, they make a simple plea: don’t let this happen again."
Obama was joined by Vice President Joseph Biden at the service, where the president spoke of the importance of mining in everyday Americans' lives.
"Day after day, they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor, what we so often take for granted: the electricity that lights up convention centers like this; that lights up our churches and homes, our schools and offices; the energy that powers our country and the world," Obama said.
The president was set to return to the White House on Sunday evening.