The Darby Mine Explosion - One Year Later

By Jon Sonnheim | 

It was one year ago Sunday that a Harlan County coal mine was rocked by an early morning explosion killing five men in Kentucky's worst mine disaster in more than 15 years. Federal mine safety officials later determined the blast was caused by the improper use of a cutting torch inside the mine, which mixed with explosive methane gas. But for the families of those lost miners and for the sole survivor of the explosion, answers haven't come so easily.

They describe it as a dream, a nightmare actually. This single moment, this one day that completely altered and changed their lives. In talking over the past year with the families of those five miners killed, they agreed upon one thing, that they will never forget what happened in Harlan County on May 20th, 2006.

On a clear, blue Saturday in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, neighbors sat on their porches and the coal, the coal continued to run through the region. But on that Saturday, May 20th, 2006, everything that so many families held dear changed in a flash, in an instant.

"Just changed immediately, abruptly, you know. Just mentally, and physically, and lost five good friends," said the sole survivor of the Darby Mine explosion Paul Ledford.

For Ledford, the restless days and sleepless nights of the past year have been filled with depression, with lungs damaged that day in the mine.

"Health been real bad, just been having nightmares," he said.

Of course everyone affected remembers that day in their own, personal way.

"A big explosion came and blowed him up and we sure miss him," said Seth Lee, whose father, Jimmy, died in the explosion.

To 4 year old Seth and her three other sons, Melissa Lee says her husband, Jimmy, meant the world and while she fears her youngest may forget the man she loved, it's the absence of Jimmy's kisses, his friendship that have forced her to fight for mine safety in his memory.

"It has been excruciating, heart wrenching, it has been life altering all the way around," Melissa said.

"His toothbrush, I can't bear to throw his toothbrush away, because I know he's not coming back," said Priscilla Petra, whose husband passed away.

It's those little remnants of Bill Petra that still haunt his wife Priscilla. She says she and her two children deal with the loss of that hardworking man who would help anyone, by sticking to routine.

"I try to stay busy, but there's an emptiness, there's part of us that's gone," Priscilla said.

Mary Middleton understands that emptiness as well.

"I don't think you can ever get over it. I'm just trying to learn to deal with it," Mary said.

Middleton says her husband, Roy, was the fun one, a caring father who always made time for their two kids until the events of May 20th took him away.

"Our oldest daughter is getting ready to graduate from 8th grade and he's not gonna be there," Mary said.

Paris Thomas Junior's children were already grown up when he died on May 20th. The very same day his grandson, also named Paris, celebrated his first birthday. For Paris' wife Tilda and their children, May 20th will continue to be a bittersweet time.

On May 20th, 2006, friends and family all met at the Cloverfork Missionary Baptist Church to pray for their miners. Imogene Brock says she wouldn't have made it through that day when she lost her husband and mine foreman, Amon "Cotton" Brock without her faith and it's that faith, seeing glimpses of their husbands in their children, that has saved these women, these families, this community.

"You hurt, and you grieve, and you miss, but just look at all of us. We're proof that you do live and you do go on," Melissa said.

And another legacy of these miners and their families has been the push for mine safety legislation. Several of these widows have fought tirelessly to push lawmakers to protect future miners so that they're families don't have to go through what they have endured.

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