May 2, 1972, is a chilly clear day in the mountains of northern Idaho. It is 6:00 A.M. and good daylight at the Sunshine silver mine in Big Creek Canyon. Robert McCoy, a timber repairman, turns his pickup truck into the mine parking lot and heads for the dryhouse to change clothes. It will be an hour before the day shift crew starts down, but he likes to get to the mine early. If a man doesn't like to rush, and McCoy doesn't, it can take half an hour to pull on his T-shirt, overalls, wool socks and steel-toed rubber boots, his helmet and belt and light and battery pack, and maybe a denim jacket to wear in the breezy shaft air going down.
After McCoy finishes changing, he walks up to the portal and pours himself half a cup of coffee from his lunch bucket -- his "emblem of ignorance," he calls it. Gaunt-faced and slender at fifty--six, he's been mining for thirty years, almost fifteen of them at Sunshine. He looks across the canyon to the ridge above the Crescent mine. In the early morning in spring you can see elk there, just below the snow line, some days as many as ten or twelve head. Yesterday he spotted three, today there are none.
By seven o'clock 173 men are assembled at the Jewel shaft, ready to go down. The "cage" or elevator can carry forty-eight men at a time, and it takes twenty minutes to lower the whole crew to the 3700-foot level, where they board a train that carries them back through a mile--long "drift" or tunnel to the No. 10 shaft. Morning starts out easy. The men are relaxed, no one's hurrying. At No. 10 shaft they have time to talk while the skip tender finishes his coffee. Then they board the skip, or cage, for the final descent-4200 feet, 5000, 5200, 5600, their helmet lights flashing against the blurred rock sides of the shaft as they hurtle through the black, thirty feet per second. There are two hoists in No. 10 shaft, the "chippy hoist" on the 3700-foot level which hauls the men, and the double-drum hoist on 3100, a thousand-horsepower monster machine, newly installed, tricky to operate. It is used to haul muck-ore and rock-though it is also equipped with a twelve-man cage.
Operating the double-drum is Ira Sliger's job, although some days, like today, he has a partner to assist him. Sliger is sixty years old, looks, as he likes to say, "big enough to eat oats and pull a plow," but forty-four years of metal mining have left their mark. One lung is gone, and the other has been weakened by emphysema-"dust on the lungs," he calls it. All morning Sliger and his partner, Bob Scanlan, sit in the control booth in the cavernous underground hoistroom, hauling muck buckets up and down the shaft according to bell signals from the cager, who supervises the muck loading a half-mile below. Until noon it is an ordinary day. At one o'clock more than half of the crew will be dead.
Shortly after twelve Sliger gets a phone call from a shaft crew on the 4400 level. (The crew had smelled smoke in the shaft and signaled for the 3700 chippy hoist. When it didn't come, and no one answered in the hoistroom, they called Sliger to ask what was wrong.) They don't mention the smoke. Sliger figures the signal system must have gone out. It failed once before in the past week, and he isn't surprised that it has apparently happened again. Underground miners keep their sanity by not worrying too much, and Sliger is philosophical. He turns back to his controls, but immediately there is another call, this from his boss, Gene Johnson, on 3700.The Sunshine Silver Mine
"'Where's your cager at?" asks Johnson. "Get him up here as soon as you can." "What's the trouble, Gene?" asks Scanlan, overhearing. "There's a fire down there."
Those are chilling words in the confined workings of a deep underground mine, where even a small, contained blaze in an oil drum, or from a single piece of machinery, can generate enough carbon monoxide to kill anyone working "inby" or downwind. And most of the mine is inby the 3700-foot level.
Besides being the main travelway from the No. 10 shaft to the Jewell shaft, the 3700 level also houses the underground foremen's office-the "Blue Room"-and the maintenance shops-the pipe, electric, machine, warehouse, and drill shops. About 11:35 A.M., shortly after they finished lunch, two miners stepped out, of the electric shop into the drift, smelled smoke, and yelled "Fire!" Thirty feet down the drift in the Blue Room, foremen Harvey Dionne and Gene Johnson grabbed their helmets and battery packs and ran out into the tunnel. What happened on 3700 during the next thirty minutes cannot be told with any certainty. By one account it was Dionne and Johnson who finally made the decision to evacuate. By another account, it was Dionne and foreman Jim Bush: In any event, before any decision was made, the foremen looked for the fire, following the smoke west toward the Jewell shaft 800 feet until they reached the 910 raise, a vertical shaft which rose 300 feet through old, worked-out portions of the mine. There the smoke seemed heaviest, but they couldn't see where it was coming from. Dionne crawled up onto the timber supports, and from there he could see smoke pouring out of the raise. By his account, he and Johnson talked briefly and decided to evacuate the mine, Johnson. starting back to No. 10 shaft to give the evacuation orders and Dionne and two other men heading for the Jewell shaft to close the fire door.
When Gene Johnson calls Sliger, cager Byron Schulz is at the 5600 level pulling muck. Sliger signals a long-short and a 3700 station call. It could have been a routine station call, but when Schulz brings the cage up to 3700, the drift is filled with smoke. And it has been for some time. Fifteen minutes earlier the chippy hoistman had to abandon the hoistroom, unable to see his controls for the smoke. With the chippy hoist out and the 3700 level blocked, the situation is critical. On orders from Gene Johnson, Schulz takes a cage full of miners to the 3 100 level, where another tunnel leads to the Jewell shaft, and starts back down for more. Schulz and Greg Dionne, a pipe fitter who came up on the cage from 3700, work together bringing the men up. The small twelve-man cage makes the process unbearably slow, as the deadly carbon monoxide gas and smoke spread quickly, down the shaft, through the mine.
Five thousand feet underground, Robert McCoy finished eating dinner and looked at his watch. It was 11:30, time to go back to work. He worked for half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes, repairing timber at the No. 10 shaft station; then he noticed smoke coming down the shaft. It keeps coming, poisoning the air, and a motor crew drives back into the drift, alerting miners along the way. The miners, about twenty of them, gather at the station and someone hands out self-rescuers (compact breathing devices that convert carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide), which are kept in a box near the station. Soon the air is a blue haze. Still the cage hasn't come. The men move back into the drift and tap a compressed-air line, turning it on full blast. It doesn't help much. They've waited thirty minutes now, and the cage is finally there; too 'late for some of the men, who later collapse in the 3100 hoistroom. They are so weak that Schulz, the slightly built twenty-one-year-old cager, has to push them onto the cage. They squeeze in tightly, but half of the men, including McCoy, are left behind. He still feels all right, he thinks, and when the cage returns he leaves his self-rescuer behind, in case someone coming out of the drift might need it.