The Widows of Harlan County

Six Men Died In Harlan County, Ky., Mines In 2006

Chances are the electricity powering your appliances comes from coal. Coal, not oil, provides half the country's electricity. And there's a cost.

Miners die, and last year was the deadliest in American coal mines in more than a decade. As correspondent Bob Simon reports, 47 miners died, six of them from just one county in eastern Kentucky, Harlan County. That's twice the number that died there in 2005.

And their widows tell 60 Minutes all the accidents could have been prevented. The "widows of Harlan County" say their husbands deserved more protection in the coal mines, mines that widow Melissa Lee says her husband Jimmy loved.

Melissa remembers her husband Jimmy loved the smell of coal. "He would inhale. And he said, 'Do you smell that?' It was almost intoxicating to him. It was like a high rush, the smell of coal."

For Jimmy Lee, mining wasn't just a job. "It was his second home. He would always say it was time for him to leave me to go to his second wife, which was the mines," his widow remembers.

Jimmy Lee loved his job, but he also knew that mining was just about the only job he could find to support his family. Harlan County is one of the poorest counties in the country. Life revolves around church and family and the mines. And if you're a coal miner, your life, as the country song goes, is always on the line.

"And it's there I read on a hillside gravestone, you'll never leave Harlan alive," the lyrics of the song go.

Men, hundreds of them, have been dying in the mines here for generations. Fewer have died in recent years, but mining still has the highest fatality rate of any job in the state.

Kent Hendrickson is a lawyer who represents mine owners in Harlan County. He agreed to talk to 60 Minutes, but because of potential lawsuits, he declined to speak about specific accidents.

"Now when I was a kid and growing up here, it was so commonplace, it was almost accepted. You wouldn't know a miner died unless you read his obituary. And you know, and it was almost a natural death. There wasn't … a guy died of a heart attack or he died in the mines," Hendrickson explains.

Asked how he would explain to people who live far from Harlan County why so many people have been killed there in the last year," Hendrickson tells Simon, "As far as I know at this point, it's a fluke."

He thinks it's just been a string of bad luck.

That explanation does not sit well with the widows of Harlan County, who held a memorial service for their husbands.

Nine men died in four separate accidents in 2005 and 2006. The widows told 60 Minutes their husbands would still be alive if the mines had been safe. The deadliest accident took place at the Kentucky Darby mine last May. State investigators concluded that methane, undetected, leaked through a wall that had been improperly constructed to seal off an abandoned part of the mine. The gas was accidentally ignited by a blowtorch. The explosion was horrific and killed Melissa Lee's husband Jimmy

"He lost the top of his head. He had an O2 tank impaled through his body. The force was so magnificent, it shot him backwards so fast, it pulled his pants over top of his mining boots. It tore his hard hat into 45 different pieces. He laid dead and stepped over top of, not even recognizing it as a human body," Melissa says.

"He left me with two babies to raise by myself," she adds.

Jimmy's wedding ring was never recovered. "He wasn't supposed to die yet," Melissa tells Simon.