TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. - Tom Toler identified the body of his youngest brother. And then he was handed a message from the dead man. In wobbly printing, written in ink on the back of an insurance application, 51-year-old miner Martin Toler Jr. said goodbye. For now.
"(I'll) see them on the other side," the note said. "It wasn't bad. I just went to sleep. I love you."
His brother, a miner himself for 30 years, was so shocked by the simple, eloquent farewell that he didn't think to ask - standing there in a newly opened morgue in a long-closed elementary school - just exactly where his brother had stashed the piece of paper. In his pocket? In his lunchbox?
"It just shook me up when they gave it to me," he said.
And as he read the boxed letters fashioned with a shaky pen, "I took it to mean that it was written in the final stages. I'd call it more or less scribbling."
Of the 12 miners who died after Monday's explosion, at least a handful managed to scrawl a last testament to their families, according to loved ones. The exact number of messages is not yet known.
All but one of the coal workers were trapped for more than 41 hours behind a curtain erected as a barrier to deadly carbon monoxide. The 12th victim may have died from the blast itself.
Another miner's brother said he knew of at least four handwritten goodbyes. But John Groves said his family was not one of the recipients though his brother, Jerry Groves, was one of the victims.
Peggy Cohen went to the Central Elementary School in nearby Buckhannon to identify the body of her 59-year-old father, Fred Ware Jr. There was no note for her, either, but the medical examiner assured her that some men had written farewells with the same assurances:
"The notes said they weren't suffering, they were just going to sleep," she was told. Now Cohen wants to find her dad's lunchbox, to see if he placed a message inside it.
Sole survivor Randal McCloy Jr., 26, of Simpson, remained in a coma, struggling to breathe with the aid of a ventilator and undergoing dialysis for his damaged kidneys. Doctors said Thursday he may have suffered brain damage. McCloy, who had worked at the Sago Mine for 18 months, was later moved from the intensive care unit at a Morgantown hospital to a Pittsburgh facility where he will undergo hyperbaric oxygen treatment.
McCloy's father, Randal McCloy Sr., told The Associated Press that he believes - though he has no evidence to support it - that his son survived because his older colleagues dragged the injured man to their makeshift hiding place and shared the last of their oxygen with him because he was the youngest, and had two small children at home.
"Those men were like brothers. They took care of each other," he said.
Each miner carried an apparatus designed to provide up to an hour's worth of air, but experts say that time can be stretched.
Before his son was transferred to Pennsylvania, McCloy visited him in the hospital. Even with the ventilator, the elder McCloy said, the young man was fighting to breathe. "I bent over and kissed his head. I told him that I loved him," he said.
The McCloy family hasn't received a note, either. "I think he was too hurt to write one," his father said.
"I'm scared. But I don't think God would take him this far and then let him pass on."
The first funerals are scheduled to begin Saturday. Flags across West Virginia were ordered flown at half-staff until the last miner is buried. In neighboring Barbour County, home to four of the fallen miners, officials memorialized the men with four crosses, each topped with a coal miner's helmet.
Meanwhile, federal and state investigators are at the mine, owned by International Coal Group of Ashland, Ky., trying to determine the cause of the explosion. There were some reports of nearby lightning strikes that may have ignited naturally occurring methane and coal dust. They also are seeking more details about poor communication on Wednesday morning that left relatives believing for three hours that 12 miners survived.
Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., said they were both given the incorrect information by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, according to Friday's editions of The Charleston Gazette.
Tom Gavin, Byrd's press secretary, said the MSHA staffer who first called to say 12 miners were alive later called back to inform the senator of "conflicting reports." But the staffer never called the office back to break the news that all but one had died. Rockefeller's office reported a similar chain of events.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the Sago mine for 208 violations in 2005, a number an agency official said was higher than normal for a mine of its size. The violations included 18 orders shutting parts of the mine until alleged violations were corrected, but none were deemed serious enough to close the entire operation.