HARLAN, Ky. – The sole survivor of a southeastern Kentucky coal mine explosion wept quietly in the front row of a church Wednesday for the first of five funerals for his friends and co-workers.
Jimmy D. Lee's widow acknowledged Paul Ledford's pain as she remembered her husband before nearly 100 mourners.
"Paul, he loved you and I love you and I'm glad you were spared," Melissa Lee said.
Funerals for two other miners — Paris Thomas Jr., 35, and George Petra, 49. were later Wednesday. Funerals for Amon Brock, 51, and Roy Middleton, 35, will be Thursday.
At Thomas' funeral, which Ledford also attended, the Rev. Sonny Dean said the communities in this mountainous county are "real tight. If we lose one, it saddens all of us."
The miners died early Saturday at the Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County. Lee and Brock died from the blast itself, while the other three died of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to preliminary tests. Ledford was rescued after he managed to crawl toward the mine entrance.
Middleton died after he turned back to try to help Thomas and Petra, Ledford told federal Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators, according to a report Wednesday in The Courier-Journal of Louisville. The newspaper obtained details of the survivor's account from unnamed people close to the investigation.
Those three and Ledford were in a different part of the mine than Lee and Brock, who were using acetylene torches to cut metal when the explosion occurred, the newspaper reported.
Ledford told investigators that he and the three other miners boarded vehicles and traveled some distance before encountering smoke, when they put on self-contained breathing devices and continued. According to the newspaper report, Thomas and Petra fell behind when they all had to walk, and Middleton went back for them while Ledford continued ahead and was eventually found by rescuers.
Ledford declined to speak to reporters at Lee's funeral, which was led by Lee's cousin.
"This is the most difficult funeral I've ever done because he's a relative," the Rev. Roland Lee said.
He comforted mourners by saying his deeply religious cousin had "finished his race here, but he just started living."
Melissa Lee said Jimmy was the answer to her prayers in 1997, when he entered the hospital she worked at looking for a doctor.
"I was driving to work at the hospital and I asked God to send me someone," she said. "I was lonely, I was sad and I needed someone for my heart."
"When he left that morning, I told my mother I met the man I wanted to marry," she said.
Dewayne Williams said Jimmy Lee was "my best friend in the whole world."
"It's been three years since I last cried. I haven't stopped since Saturday," he said.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher ordered that a Kentucky flag fly at half-staff over the state Capitol in Frankfort during the hour of each miner's funeral. Each flag will be sent to the dead miners' families.
The investigation into the explosion has been slowed because of lingering methane and carbon monoxide, said Mark York, spokesman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Environmental and Public Protection.
"Today will be the first day that our investigators will actually start processing things inside the mine," York said Wednesday.