Sunday, May 20th, 2007, marked the first anniversary of the Kentucky Darby Mine Explosion, which claimed the lives of five good men: Jimmy Lee, Amon Brock, Roy Middleton, Paris Thomas, Jr., and Bill Petra.
A sixth victim of the tragedy, Paul Ledford, is forever haunted by his memories of that day. Wracked with guilt for being the only one to survive the experience, Paul suffers from chronic anxiety, depression and insomnia resulting from post-traumatic stress. Because of damage to his lungs caused by smoke inhalation, he must get breathing treatments six times a day. “I don’t feel like going out of the house or nothing,” he told Stephanie Seitzer of the Louisville Courier-Journal. “I stay to myself, cry and stuff like that.” (Read more about Paul here or here.)
And then there are the family members of these men: the wives, daughters, sons—all bearing unanswered questions, mourning memories made and unmade, all struggling to carry on. “There has not been a day since the day that he died that I haven’t cried,” says Melissa Lee, widow of Jimmy Lee. They remember the little things—the things they could once take for granted—the things they will never have again. In the past, Mary Middleton may have been annoyed by the coal ring her husband left in the bathtub. Today, she says, “What I’d give to see that.” Melissa Lee says she misses the feel of her husband’s mouth when he would press his lips on her shoulder as she cooked. “Jimmy liked to eat fried cheeseburgers,” she said. “I cry when I fry cheeseburgers.”*
Lee’s 4-year old son, Seth, sits under a tree in backyard and talks to his daddy. Natalie Middleton’s daughter misses riding ATVs and having wrestling matches with hers. And Tilda Thomas’s grown daughter, Tracey, cries that her father will never see his grandchildren.
And yet, in spite of their own losses, the survivors of this tragedy have become champions for mine safety. The widows have worked tirelessly to promote stricter mine regulations and better enforcement of existing ones. They’ve lobbied in Kentucky and even in Washington, DC. As difficult as it is for him to talk about his experience, Paul Ledford has come forward to talk about the inadequacies of current breathing devices miners are told to use in emergency situations— triggering a much-needed discussion regarding the adequacy of both the devices and the training provided to the miners who might need to use them.
These people have been through the worst of the worst, and yet they have pressed forward to protect others. They have fought to keep their brothers and sisters of the mining community from going through what they’ve been through—from suffering in the same ways that they have over the past year.
And so, as we take a moment to remember the lives of those five men whose lives were so tragically lost one year ago at the Darby Mine, let us also remember those who never got to say goodbye— those who rose above their own pain and suffering to make workplaces safer. Like the Darby families for coal miners, Eva Rowe for petrochemical plant workers, Tammy Miser for dust explosions, and the other left-behind victims of workplace fatalities, their courage and tenacity are an inspiration to all of us.
Jafari, Samira. Grief muffles achievements for widows. Associated Press. May 20, 2007.
Jafari, Samira. Lone survivor haunted by mine explosion. Associated Press. May 20, 2007.
Lee-Sherman, Deanna. Families seek healing from disaster. Harlan Daily Enterprise. May 19, 2007.
* Many quotes in this post originally appeared in this article: Steitzer, Stephanie. Families’ wounds run deep. Louisville Courier-Journal. May 20, 2007.
Steitzer, Stephanie. Miner sees his life as a blessing and curse. Louisville Courier-Journal. May 20, 2007.