PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Surrounded by smoke from the blast, he
urges his friend to follow him, insisting he's found a way out. But
the two separate in the dust and darkness. Panic-stricken, he
continues to drag himself toward the mine exit, before his body
weakens and he blacks out.
That's when Paul Ledford wakes up from the recurring nightmare
haunting him most nights.
Ledford was the sole survivor of an underground mine explosion
on May 20,2006, that killed five Harlan County coal miners.
"I still have my nightmares and my nerves are bothering me a
lot," Ledford told the Associated Press in a recent phone
Two miners, Jimmy Lee, 33, and Amon Brock, 51, died at the scene
of the methane explosion, sparked by an open-flame torch. The other
three victims - Roy Middleton, 35, Paris Thomas Jr., 53, and Bill
Petra, 49 - died from carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke
inhalation while trying to escape.
Ledford said Middleton was right behind him during the escape,
but turned back to find a major electric box - a point of
orientation. He said he tried to convince Middleton that he found a
power cable leading out of the mine - called a "high line" - but
to no avail.
"I said I got the high line in my hand. Here, Roy, let's go,
let's get out of here. Let's go," Ledford told federal
investigators, according to a June 2 transcript from the U.S. Mine
Safety and Health Adminstration. "He kept going back."
Today, Ledford says he's still troubled by the moment that he
and Middleton parted.
And his mind is fraught with unanswered questions: Who
instructed Lee and Brock to repair underground roof straps with a
cutting torch? Why was his life spared?
Ledford said that while the victims were born-again Christians,
he wasn't. "It makes me wonder why they died and I didn't."
The soft-spoken, shy Ledford spends most days in his Harlan
County trailer with his wife and two teenage daughters: "I don't
like going out much because everyone asks me about what happened."
Smoke inhalation left his lungs with only half their capacity,
forcing Ledford to take breathing treatments up to six times a day.
He's been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, goes to
therapy and needs medication to sleep at night.
He rarely speaks publicly about the explosion, but quietly
supported the widows of his fellow miners in their demands for
stronger mine safety laws, appearing at rallies and meetings with
federal and state lawmakers.
Tony Oppegard, Ledford's attorney who also represents four of
the five widows, said Ledford intends to pursue a lawsuit.
"It's unlikely Paul will ever be able to work again, so the
purpose is to help take care of Paul's family as well as himself,"
He added that Ledford likely faces a lifetime of breathing
problems and emotional difficulties.
Ledford has known the dangers of mining - one of his brothers
died in a mine accident while another was permanently injured in an
underground roof collapse.
"I hope I get better," he said. "I don't know if I'll go back
to the mines though."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)