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Despite Achievements, Widows of Mine Disaster Struggle With Grief

By SAMIRA JAFARI
Associated Press Writer

EVARTS, Ky. (AP) - Her husband died underground a year ago, but to Mary Middleton, every day feels like May 20, 2006.

It's the day her prayers at a tiny church failed to save him. The day she became a widow and a single mom. The day that sparked grief so intense, she still cries at the mention of his name.

"I still can't accept that he's gone," said Middleton, whose husband, Roy, died with four other Harlan County miners in an explosion at the Kentucky Darby mine.

"If it wasn't for my kids, I'd just as soon not live," Middleton said.

Two miners, Jimmy Lee, 33, and Amon Brock, 51, died at the scene of the explosion. The other three victims - Middleton, 35, Paris Thomas Jr., 53, and Bill Petra, 49 - died from carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation while trying to escape. A sixth miner, Paul Ledford, survived the blast, though he suffered permanent damage to his lungs from smoke inhalation.

Federal and state investigators concluded that the improper use of a cutting torch ignited the underground methane explosion.

Much has happened since the explosion: the widows aired their mine safety concerns with congressmen and state legislators, leading to an overhaul of Kentucky's mine safety laws; the mine operation was abandoned and the operator, Copperhead Mining Co., was fined $336,000 by the federal government for safety violations.

Meanwhile, an attorney for the widows says wrongful death lawsuits, seeking insurance and other benefits, will be filed against the coal company.

Despite all that, the widows feel little consolation. The approaching anniversary of the explosion only draws feelings of sadness and exhaustion.

None of the widows interviewed for this story had immediate plans to mark the day of the disaster.

"I want to go on top of a a mountain somewhere and say, 'I can't do this anymore,"' said Tilda Thomas, widow of Paris Thomas Jr. "You know, I can't stand this stuff any more."

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The women said they never anticipated months of protesting and lobbying for mine safety reform in the moment they became widows, but that's how they spent much of the past year.

Less than two weeks after the explosion, the women protested state investigators' closed-door interviews with witnesses. They stood their ground when officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration kept their interviews private, as well.

And, despite 2006 federal and state legislation that improved mine safety, the widows demanded even stronger laws to protect coal miners.

A strengthening of Kentucky's mine safety law passed after the January 2006 Sago disaster in West Virginia and took effect July 12. But following the Darby explosion, the widows pushed for more. This year, the law was revised to require inspectors from the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing to double their visits to underground coal mines from three to a minimum of six per year. It also requires at least one member of every underground crew to carry a methane detector.

When the bill appeared to be on the verge of dying without action, the women rallied at the Capitol rotunda.

"That to me was the pivotal moment," said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety lobbyist and attorney for four of the five Darby widows. "They turned their grief into something positive, trying to make the mines safer."

However, he said that achievement did little to heal them.

"To call it a consolation, I don't think that's the correct term," he said. "There's nothing out there to really console them."\

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Pain pushed two widows, Melissa Lee and Tilda Thomas, to leave the state.

Lee, widow of Jimmy Lee, left Harlan in November for Speedwell, Tenn., and plans to start working as a pet groomer again.

The most outspoken of the widows, Lee thrust herself into advocacy within weeks of the explosion, publicly criticizing mine safety officials, especially those from MSHA.

In those days, the mother of four said she couldn't return to work or move away, but time and memories forced Lee to consider big changes. The tipping point, she said, was fielding criticism and threats from anonymous callers against her family for being so vocal.

"I moved due to the fact of all the phone calls and negativity I was getting over being an advocate," she said. "There were threatening phone calls."

Except for a few photos, she left behind her husband's belongings, she said. His clothes, his favorite recliner - it all stayed in the old house.

"It's still like it was when Jimmy was there," she said. "I get panic attacks when I'm in that house."

Thomas moved to Salt Rock, W.Va., in hopes of finding peace.

The lifetime homemaker said she planned to spend May 20 doing something she missed out on last year - celebrating her grandson's birthday. The day for 2-year-old Paris will be bittersweet, she said.

"A few weeks ago, I opened my eyes and thought, 'Oh God, it's May,"' she said. "I'm here in West Virginia, but I cry everyday."

The women, all mothers, said the hardest part about getting on with their lives was trying to fulfill the roles of their husbands.

"That's been one of the toughest things, knowing that I have to make all the decisions," said Priscilla Petra, a school teacher and mother of two.

She worries about how her 11-year-old daughter will miss out on having her dad around.

"I wonder can I raise her the way she needs to be without him?" she said. "When it's prom night, her dad won't be there for that or to walk her down the aisle or hold his first grandbaby. It's something she's going to face."

She added: "I don't really think there will be closure for me."

Their children give them a reason to cope and try to be strong, to move past the hurt.

Middleton said her daughters are the reason she makes herself get out of bed and try acccept her husband's death. This month, she finally put a down payment on his headstone and she tries to limit her tears to mornings, when her girls are in school.

"It was starting to bother my little one," she said of her 8-year-old.

But the disaster has tested Middleton's faith, and she knows it's going to take a long time for her to overcome it.

"In church they say God has something special for me," she said. "But how can He have something special for me when one of the people so special to me was taken away?"

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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