May 15, 2006 12:00 PM

For four months John Groves has wondered what his brother’s last moments were like in West Virginia’s Sago Mine, where 12 men died after a Jan. 2 explosion. Now, after receiving a letter from sole survivor Randal McCloy Jr., Groves, 43, is full of conflicting emotions—outrage after reading that his brother Jerry’s air pack failed and comfort that McCloy shared his own oxygen with the dying Groves. “I would almost consider Randal my brother’s brother,” he says.

In an April 26 letter to miners’ families, McCloy paints a picture of camaraderie, resolve and, finally, a kind of peace as carbon-monoxide poisoning took the lives of 11 men. (The fire boss, Terry Helms, was killed in the blast.) The three-page letter chronicles how the men mounted two escape attempts and tried to signal their location to rescue workers. “We found a sledgehammer, and for a long time, we took turns pounding away. This effort caused us to breathe much harder,” McCloy, 27, wrote. “We eventually gave out and quit our attempts.”

McCloy, whose recovery from carbon-monoxide poisoning after 41 hours in the mine has astonished doctors, also told of how, after at least four emergency air packs failed, the miners shared their most precious resource. “I shared my rescuer with Jerry Groves, while Junior [Martin] Toler, Jesse Jones and Tom Anderson sought help from others,” he wrote. International Coal Group, Inc., which owns the mine, responded in a statement that the air packs “were all within their manufacturer suggested life” and had been checked every 90 days.

In his letter, McCloy describes Martin Toler helping to mount one of the escape attempts and, as death grew near, leading the miners in the Sinner’s Prayer. “We were worried and afraid, but we began to accept our fate,” McCloy wrote. “We prayed a little longer, then someone suggested that we each write letters to our loved ones.” All of which is a “double-edged sword” for Toler’s son Chris, 30, who says he had hoped never to learn the details of his father’s death. “It’s a little bit of closure,” he says, “and opening up wounds at the same time.”

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