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Widow of killed miner campaigns for safety

A Kentucky woman whose husband was killed in a min explosion has closed to business to act as a safety advocate for other miners, researching what causes underground explosions and what can prevent them.
Melissa Lee
Melissa Lee, left, the widow of Jimmy Lee, protests along with others against a closed-door hearing held by state officials investigating the blast that killed their loved ones in May.Zachary Canterll / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Melissa Lee tried to go back to work at her pet grooming shop, but it was too hard.

There were so many reminders of her husband, Jimmy, who died in a mine explosion along with four other miners May 20.

“He’s still here,” says Lee, crying in the pet grooming shop she opened a year ago. “This isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing right now.”

Since the explosion at Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1, the mother of four has decided to close her shop, go back to college and become a mine safety advocate, all in hopes of keeping her husband’s memory alive and preventing future mine accidents.

“I don’t want his death to be in vain,” she says.

The Lees met in the summer of 1997 when Melissa, a 25-year-old single mother of two, was working as a clerk at the Harlan Hospital. Jimmy went to the hospital after a chip of coal slid into his ear canal. They married four months later.

She had reservations about marrying another miner. She watched her grandfathers succumb to black lung, emphysema and back injuries. Her first husband was disabled from a mining injury.

But she couldn’t resist Jimmy’s kindness.

“When Jimmy came to my life, he gave me better self-esteem,” Melissa says.

'I’m going to do what it takes'
Jimmy wanted her to go back to college and pursue her dreams of being a physical therapist. She shied away from the idea, especially with the first of two more sons on the way. But she eventually became interested in starting her own business and “Lee-lee’s Pet Laundry” came to life.

It was there that Melissa and the other Darby widows met about twice a month to vent, cry and share stories.

She found comfort in their presence, but the meetings aren’t enough to keep her doors open. She’s packing up all the pet photos and bottles of dog shampoo and catnip toys crowding the shelves.

“She’s had the ultimate loss,” says Wes Addington, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, who has helped jump-start Melissa’s future as an advocate.

Melissa is researching what causes underground explosions and what can prevent them. She’s joined a new advisory board of active and retired miners and other widows organized by the law center to support tougher mine safety bills during the next legislative session.

She plans to enroll in college soon, possibly major in public speaking.

“I’m going to do what it takes to get laws changed,” she says.

Despite new federal and state laws that require mine companies to provide more air packs, escape drills and closer rescue teams, Melissa is demanding more.

She wants underground miners to carry their own methane detectors so they don’t have to rely on one worker’s checks. She believes coal operators should have tracking devices underground to pinpoint the location of any miner at any time.

“I can’t be quiet any more,” she says. “If I have to fly to Washington, if I have to go before Congress and beg to change legislation, I will.”

'I have to speak for Jimmy'
Melissa hasn’t always been so vocal. In the days after the explosion, when other widows spoke publicly about their husbands, she declined.

Her turning point came May 31, when state troopers blocked two mine safety advocates representing the Darby families from entering a room where investigators were interviewing mine employees.

While officials insisted the troopers were placed to protect witnesses from reporters, their presence shocked Melissa.

“I thought that was ridiculous for state police to ward off grieving wives,” she says. “You don’t hold people away from information.”

Since then, she’s been one of the most vocal mining widows, publicly criticizing mine safety officials, especially those from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

She wants more accountability from MSHA, which has promised the families a thorough investigation of the disaster and of their own employees involved with the mine.

“I think it’s admirable of her,” said Priscilla Petra, whose husband George, was among the miners killed at Darby. “I guess the more people you have working toward safety, more will get done.”

Yet, Melissa knows that transitioning into her new life won’t be easy.

She doesn’t know how to explain to her two toddler boys that Daddy isn’t coming home again. She can’t fall asleep until 4 a.m. “That’s when Jimmy used to come home,” she says.

In the hurt, she finds motivation.

“I feel like I have to speak for Jimmy.” she says.