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Designer awed by Upper Big Branch memorial

WHITESVILLE, W.Va. -- Rob Dinsmore takes a bittersweet pride in his pet project.

The landscape architect said he's grateful for the opportunity to create a memorial for the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster.

Dinsmore just wishes there were no disaster to memorialize.

Workers from Beckley Crane and Construction installed the first three of six giant granite slabs at the memorial site Tuesday. They plan to finish the job today and cover the stone with a tarp until a dedication ceremony July 27.

After the monument is unveiled, passing drivers on W.Va. 3 will see the silhouettes of 29 coal miners, their arms locked around one another's shoulders.

As visitors walk behind the 10-inch-thick wall, they will see etched in stone a history of West Virginia's coal industry and the names of the 29 men who died in the April 5, 2010 explosion.

Dinsmore, 27. was a month away from graduation when the tragedy occurred. He was pulling long hours in a West Virginia University landscape architecture studio, preparing his final project. He didn't find out about the explosion until he returned home that Monday night and turned on his television.

Like other West Virginians, he was glued to news coverage of the disaster for the rest of the week until mine rescue crews confirmed the 29 men left inside all had died.

Months later, he was working at Chapman Technical Group in St. Albans. Dinsmore's boss, Joe Bird, was in discussions with the town of Whitesville to create a monument for the Upper Big Branch miners at a local park.

"Initially I felt the magnitude of what happened . . . it was a disaster on a national scale. I felt it needed something more prominent," Dinsmore said.

He sat down at his computer and without a word to anyone started laying down ideas for a monument.

Though Dinsmore studied monuments as part of the landscape architecture program at WVU, he never had designed one. He experimented with several ideas but kept coming back to the same basic shape: a wall shaped like an Appalachian ridge.

"I just started building models of these monuments. From the beginning, they all seemed to have that theme," he said.

He decided to include silhouettes of coal miners on the mountain ridge. Although the monument would feature the names of the men who died at Upper Big Branch, Dinsmore did not want to include pictures of their faces. "What you want to avoid is designing a tombstone," he said. By using silhouettes, the monument would not just reflect the Upper Big Branch miners but any person who ever worked a shift in a coal mine.

"It represented the 29 miners we lost, but it also represents all coal miners," he said.

Dinsmore experimented with several materials for the memorial, including glass panels etched with miners' silhouettes and illuminated from below. He decided that would be too difficult to maintain, so he looked at a glass and granite combination. Eventually, he decided on a solid wall of black granite.

He showed the design to Bird, who mailed it to Whitesville town leaders.

The plans happened to arrive one day after the Whitesville Town Council asked Sheila Combs to start a nonprofit to raise money for a memorial.

Combs, who now serves as president of the Upper Big Branch Mining Memorial Group, said she fell instantly in love with Dinsmore's design. She called Bird right away.

"I said, 'You've got an architect, and I don't know his name, but I need him to design something for me,' " she said.

Bird called back 10 minutes later with Dinsmore on the line. "She said, 'Look, you design it like it needs to be, and I'll get the money,' " Dinsmore remembered.

Combs and the memorial group eventually raised more than $600,000 for the memorial project.

Dinsmore's original idea included only the wall and one planter, but the project grew as the group raised more funds. He soon added more planters, a welcome sign and a bronze sculpture dedicated to the firefighters, police, mine rescue workers and emergency medical personnel who responded to the disaster.

The plan for the main wall changed a little through the design process.

Underneath the miners' silhouette is a phrase taken from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 11: "Come unto me all you who labor and I will give you rest."

The inscription was Combs' idea.

"That's what kept coming to me. I kept coming back to that," she said.

At a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of the disaster, State Police Chaplain James Mitchell began his benediction with that scripture. Combs said cold chills ran up her arm. That was all the confirmation she needed.

The words are now etched in stone.

"It's the kind of project you dream about when you're in school," Dinsmore said.

He said he's thankful for the creative freedom Combs and her group gave him in the design process. If there had to be an Upper Big Branch Memorial, Dinsmore said he's glad he was chosen to do it.

"It's been a huge privilege," he said.


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