"There's no greater pain than attempting to help people and they get hurt. It's horrible," James Arthur Ray told CNN on Monday night in what the station touted as his first interview since being released from prison.
"I'm very sorry and remorseful about what happened. I wish I could change that," Ray added. "It's not easy to live with. That anguish has continued every single day."
Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman of Prior Lake, Minn., died following the October 2009 ceremony Ray led near Sedona. Eighteen other people were injured.
Ray was convicted in 2011 on three counts of negligent homicide and served 20 months in prison. He also was required to spend time in Arizona on community supervision, which ended on Oct. 12.
Ray appealed the verdicts but later dropped the challenge, saying he wanted to avoid the possibility of a retrial and resentencing.
Sweat lodges are commonly used by American Indian tribes to cleanse the body and prepare for hunts, ceremonies and other events. They typically hold no more than a dozen people, compared with the more than 50 people inside Ray's ceremony in Arizona.
The ceremony involves stones heated up outside the lodge, brought inside and placed in a pit. The door is closed, and water is poured on the stones, producing heat aimed at releasing toxins in the body. In traditional ceremonies, the person who pours the water is said to have an innate sense about the conditions of others inside the sweat lodge, many times recognizing problems before they physically are presented.
Prosecutors and families of the victims said Ray ratcheted up the heat in the Arizona sweat lodge to dangerous levels, ignored pleas for help and watched as participants were dragged out of the tent-like facility.
"I didn't know that anyone was in a life-or-death situation. I was totally shocked," Ray told CNN. "It was my event. I designed it.
"I've done this for a number of years, and we've never had anything close to this. I had systems in place and the system broke down. ... I'm responsible."
Ray said he has lost "everything" because of the tragedy and he has "no intention of ever doing another sweat lodge."