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Last night, 29 small cloth balloons floated in the sky above Whitesville, West Virginia. Each balloon was glowing with a small flame inside. This was the day's final act of remembrance for the 29 coal miners who died in a massive explosion exactly one year ago. NPR's Howard Berkes has spent the last year investigating the disaster at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, and he spent yesterday at memorial services.

HOWARD BERKES: Before the first service began at a church in Beckley, West Virginia, Sherry Mullins Scurlock pulled me aside to talk about her brother Rex.

Ms. SHERRY MULLINS SCURLOCK: He was the third child. He has two brothers and two sisters. He was a father. He has now three granddaughters.

BERKES: The Rex Mullins clan filled an entire row in the pews, all wearing t-shirts with his image. Scurlock tried to describe her feelings on a difficult day.

Ms. SCURLOCK: Total sadness, an emptiness, scared that people will - I'm scared people will forget.

BERKES: This was a common theme all day, and just after three in the afternoon, precisely one year after the Upper Big Branch Mine erupted, a bell outside the church began to chime.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

The bell rang 29 times. This too was a common theme. One minute and 29 seconds of silence, 29 lumps of coal at a makeshift memorial, 29 balloons released skyward, 29 names read aloud.

Unidentified Man: Carl Acord.

(Soundbite of bell chiming)

Jason Atkins.

(Soundbite of bell chiming)

Christopher Bell.

(Soundbite of bell chiming)

BERKES: This was at a later service last night reserved for the families of the victims, government officials, mine rescuers and emergency responders. The auditorium at the elementary school in Whitesville, West Virginia, was packed. And the stage was lined with crosses and miners' hardhats and headlamps shining brightly. Pastor David Minturn tried to reassure the families from the start.

Pastor DAVID MINTURN (Sylvester Baptist Church): I want you to know, families, you're not forgotten. We remember. That's what this service is about. You're not forgotten.

BERKES: And Labor secretary Hilda Solis tried to drive home the point.

Secretary HILDA SOLIS (Department of Labor): We will never forget this tragedy. Because only by remembering will we continue our vigilance to make sure that this type of tragedy never happens again.

BERKES: Former governor and now Senator Joe Manchin referred to the disaster investigations.

Senator JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, West Virginia): I want you to know that they did not die in vain. I know we will find the answer. We'll prevent this from happening.

BERKES: These words were meant to comfort and there were no challenges to them, even after a year without mine safety reform in Congress or any final reports from multiple civil and criminal probes. There was still unbearable grief after all.

(Soundbite of music)

As the families filed out single file, the rest of the crowd stood and watched silently. One family's pain was captured in an ad in the morning paper in Beckley. Beneath a photo of a young miner in overalls and helmet are these words: We wake up missing you, crying for you, and we go to bed the same way. Gary Quarles was one of 29 miners lost last April 5th.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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