Family Mourns First Miner Pronounced Dead

Terry Helms, a coal miner for 35 years, was the first body found after West Virginia's Sago Mine explosion.

Helms, 50, was located far away from the other miners, nearest to the mine entrance, in precisely the spot where he would have been standing at the time of the blast.

"What we're gathering, he was knocked unconscious and the gases put him to sleep and he didn't feel anything," said his son, 25-year-old Nick Helms.

Judy Shackleford, Terry Helms' sister, said the medical examiner told the family someone had left a note on his body saying he'd died peacefully.

"We don't know who left the note," she said. "We haven't seen it."

Helms was a "fire boss," which means he was the first one in the mine to check for methane or other toxic fumes. Sago Mine had been closed for the holidays, and Helms was part of the first crew to enter that day, so he would have been the first one down there -- entering the mine about an hour before the shift change, walking the entire mine wearing sensors that detect carbon monoxide or methane. He had only worked at Sago for six months.

Virginia Moore, Terry Helms' fiancee, said she worried about his safety.

"You always have that fear," she said. "You don't dwell on it."

"It was his job. He did it well," she added.

Helms was an avid hunter, fisherman and golfer. It was Terry Helms' dream for his son to become a professional golfer. Nick Helms said his father forbid him to become a miner.

"He wanted better for myself and my sister," Nick Helms said. "He didn't want me to have to endure the strenuous work."

John Helms, Terry Helms' brother, has been a miner for 36 years and plans to return to the mines soon. He said he remembered Helms as a storyteller who had to relate every single detail.

Because Helms was found first, his family was spared the emotional roller coaster endured by other families when they were told the men had survived, only to learn three hours later they had died.

"I'm so glad we didn't have to go through it," said Terry Helms' daughter, Amber Helms, 22.

Amber Helms added that the focus now needed to be "laying the men to rest."

The other men who died in the Sago Mine tragedy were Thomas P. Anderson, Alva Martin "Marty" Bennett, Jim Bennett, Jerry Groves, George Hamner Jr., Jesse L. Jones, David Lewis, Martin Toler, Fred Ware Jr., Jack Weaver and Marshall Winans. Only Randal McCloy Jr. survived.