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.
On the 3100 he gets off the skip and walks with another miner a few hundred feet down the drift; then, too weak to go on, they sit down on the side of the tunnel, feeling sick, too sick to be frightened. A man train stops and someone lifts them on. McCoy doesn't see or hear anymore. He is unconscious.
Byron Schulz brings the second load up from 5000, and returns to the 3100 hoistroom at 12:44. He stumbles off the cage, and into the hoistroom, which is filled with the bodies of collapsed miners, some still gasping for air, some dead. Only Schulz and another miner, Doug Wiederrick, are still up. "There's nothing we can do here," says Schulz, and they start out of the hoistroom. But the smoke is thick in the drift. Wiederrick turns back and picks up the telephone and asks topside where they can find fresh air. "The Jewell shaft," he is told. "My God! We'll never make it," he cries, and slumps to the floor. Schulz bends over him and pushes a selfrescuer into his mouth, but the miner spits it out, unconscious. Schulz, alone now, struggles out of the hoistroom and begins the long walk to the Jewell shaft. A thousand feet out he meets a rescue crew wearing oxygen packs coming from the surface.
"They're all dead back there, they're all dead back there," Schulz gasps, over and over. He pleads for oxygen and one member of the team, holding his breath, places his own mask over Schulz's face. At the same time, Don Beehner, another crew member, also pulls off his mask to help Schulz. He is down instantly, overcome by the deadly carbon monoxide gas. Blood gushes from his mouth and nose. Within seconds he is dead.
In the hoistroom the smoke began to bother Sliger soon after Johnson called. He put on a self-rescuer and gave one to his partner, Bob Scanlan. They closed the doors of the glass cab in which they worked, but still the smoke came in. When Johnson arrived with the cage from 3700, he ordered Sliger to get out. Sliger turned the controls over to Scanlan, and caught the last train out, the same train that had stopped for McCoy. By the time he reached the surface, less than ten minutes later, topside had lost contact with the hoistroom.
Thirty-one men, including Bob Scanlan, Greg Dionne, Gene Johnson, and Doug Wiederrick, died on the hoistroom floor. Eighty men made it out of the mine that day. Byron Schulz was the last. Of the rest trapped below when the hoistman died, only two men survived. On 4800 level Ron Flory and Tom Wilkinson had waited at the shaft station with other miners, but as the smoke kept billowing down the shaft, they ran back into the drift until they found fresh air, brought in by compressed-air lines. They waited there for seven days in the black silent mine until they were found by rescuers. They survived on sandwiches scavenged from their dead buddies' lunch buckets and water from condensation on the air cooler. The rescue teams worked slowly, severely hampered by dense smoke and intense heat as the fire continued to burn. They did not recover the last body until May 13. The final death toll was ninety-one men. It was the worst disaster in the hard-rock mining industry since 1917.
The Sunshine mine is on the eastern slope of a narrow valley cut through the sparsely forested, smelter-scarred Bitterroot Mountains by Big Creek. Owned and operated by the Sunshine Mining Company, the mine is the biggest silver producer in the country (seven million ounces, worth $10.9 million, in 1971), a huge sprawling network of 110 miles of shafts and tunnels. Only a relatively small section of the mine near the No. 10 shaft has been worked in recent years. The mine is like an anthill, with major drifts following the ore deposits east and west from the No. 10 shaft, the drifts running horizontally at intervals of 200 feet, one on top of another, and connected vertically by shafts and raises which provide transportation, ventilation, electricity, and compressed air and water. Leading off the main drifts are small dead-end "stopes," the producing areas of the mine. The drifts follow a major fault line which runs east and west through the mountains. Most of the metals mined in the Coeur d'Alene district-silver, lead, zinc, copper, and antimonyare found in rich deposits along this fault. This twenty-by-thirty-mile area in Shoshone County produces half of the silver mined annually in the United States.
The Sunshine miners are either "day's pay" miners, hourly workers who handle support and maintenance jobs-the motormen, hoistmen, cagers, timber repairmen, electricians, pipe fitters; or they are "gyppo" or contract miners, paid according to the number of feet they drive through the rock. Contract mining is hard work and the most dangerous. "I've seen young fellas come in there, twenty-one years old," says a Sunshine miner. "At thirty-five, forty years, they're stoked out, we call it. They get injured more. They have broken arms and broken legs and broken backs." But it pays well. An average gyppo miner can make $50 a day and the better miners can make $80 to $100 a.day.
Gyppo miners work a mining cycle which ends with blasting, so that each new shift finds a pile of blasted rock awaiting it in the stopes. At the start of the shift, the miners, working two to a stope, "bar down," or knock down loose rock from the "ground"-the roof and sides of the blasted area. If the ground is still unstable they may brace it with rock bolts or timber. Then they wet down the rock and "muck out," removing the pay dirt with a machine that scoops it to the nearest raise, where it falls into ore cars below to be hauled out. The remainder of the shift is spent drilling deep holes into the "face" of the rock. At the end of the shift the holes are filled with dynamite and blasted.
Practically every man who lives in the Coeur d'Alene valley has mined at one time or another, and many have worked as loggers, too. Traditionally, hard-rock mining has been a "tramp" occupation, the miners moving from mining camp to mining camp, following the high-paying jobs in the rich metal mines of the West. They move too often to have roots, living in tiny shacks, spending their money for pleasure-drinking, gambling, and whoring. The miners in Coeur d'Alene are more stationary now, but they still live in shacks and trailers up and down the valley. The mines-the Lucky Friday, Star, Crescent, Bunker Hill, Galena, and Sunshine-and the towns they support, are scattered along the Coeur d'Alene River and Interstate 90, which follows the riverbed across the northern panhandle of Idaho.
Every year four or five men die in the mines of the "silver valley" from rockfalls, haulage accidents, falls down shafts. Twenty-four men died in the district's mines between 1966 and 1970, five of them in the Sunshine mine. Bureau of Mines statistics are not available for 1971, but two men died that year in a fire at the Star mine, and one died in a rockfall at the Sunshine mine. But no one expected a tragedy of the size of the 1972 Sunshine disaster. "Everyone in the hard-rock mines thought this could never happen--nothing of this magnitude," says John Parker, manager of the Bunker Hill lead and zinc mine in Kellogg. That is the typical miner's view, too. "The fact is, this fire was totally unexpected," says Ira Sliger. "In my forty-four years of mining I've never seen anything like it. It didn't smell like anything I'd ever smelled, or look like anything I'd ever seen. It was just one terrible fire and a terrible disaster."
"It was an incredible kind of a freak accident," Carl Burke, a company attorney, told reporters in a parking lot press conference at the mine the day after the fire. He said mine officials believed the fire might have started from spontaneous combustion, smoldering in old timber--filled workings near the 3700-foot level of the mine, possibly for days, before suddenly the pressure of expanding gases burst through the airtight bulkheads used to seal off the worked--out drifts. Then the poisonous gases flowed swiftly into the mainstream of the ventilation system.
But Sunshine could not be faulted, Burke said. "We have been one of the forerunners [sic] of the mine health and safety act. What happened here yesterday, when the facts are out, will show it to be a very tragic, but a freak accident." Later Burke would admit: "I don't know if I can factually clarify that. I would even scratch that line. I don't know if it's a good one." He would explain that before the fire, company officials had prided themselves on their efforts to improve safety conditions in the mine and within the industry, but "in retrospect, it is clear that whatever we had done was not enough-that the mine at that time was not able to respond to that kind of a disaster." And as the facts began to emerge, they suggested not so much a "freak accident" as a flawed and familiar pattern in industry-of choosing, once too often, to favor production needs over safety precautions. "The trouble is, the whole thing is, if they had let me know about this thirty minutes earlier, most of those men would have been alive today," says Ira Sliger. The evacuation order could have been given when the fire was first discovered, sometime close to 11:35 A.M., but mine foremen looked first for the source of the smoke, delaying evacuation until 12:05 P.M. By then 3700 level was impassable and the chippy hoist inoperable.
Hap Fowler, who was working in the warehouse and made it out, assesses the situation in the same way as Sliger. "The reason those guys died," he says, "no foreman wanted to take the responsibility to get those men out of there early enough. It isn't here at the mines-our people. It starts at New York-the big wheels. If they'd pulled those men out, somebody could have got in a lot of trouble--not by Chase [Marvin Chase is a director and vice president of the company and general manager of mining operations], Chase is a hell of a nice guy. He would have backed them up. But New York, the big shots back in the East. They would have really picked a bitch. All the bosses know that. If they'd pulled those men out that would mean they would probably lose twenty-five or thirty rounds [of blasting]." And that would have cost thousands of dollars.
Fowler knew about "New York" from personal experience, he says. About a year ago he was working for Jim Atha, then safety engineer, and asked him for some self-rescuers-"the good kind." The reason he wanted them, he says, is that "we didn't have enough. I wanted to get some aluminum ones. These old ones rusted out too fast. Two or three levels didn't have any on them." But Atha told him, "I can't get them."
"I said, 'Why not?'
"He said, 'They cost thirty-five dollars apiece.'
"I said, 'Jesus Christ, man, thirty-five dollars ain't much.'
"He said, Well, I got this letter'—he pulled out this letter. It was from New York, giving him hell for spending so much." Atha says he doesn't recall ever getting any letter from New York.
The big wheels—the directors of the mining company—are part of a group of investors that seized control of the company in a 1965 proxy fight. The group was led by the late Louis Beryl, a New York insurance broker, who a few years before had participated in a take-over of the United States Smelting Refining and Mining Company. Beryl and his group had barely taken their seats on the Sunshine board before they began casting about for more companies to take over. In 1965 alone, the company attempted, unsuccessfully, to merge with Kerr-McGee Corporation, Independent Coal & Coke, and U.S. Industries. In 1968 the company borrowed $20 million and bought Renwell Industries, a failing Pennsylvania-based electronics firm, for $12 million, including the assumption of a $6-million debt. That might not seem like the best investment in the world for a small Western mining company, unless, of course, you were a Renwell director. Two Sunshine directors had been, and Sunshine stockholders charged, in a suit still pending, that Irwin P. Underweiser, chairman of the board and president of Sunshine, and another Sunshine director benefited from the purchase, which involved an exchange of stock. In 1969 the company bid unsuccessfully for the bankrupt Canandaigua Race Track in upstate New York. Meanwhile, several still pending suits filed by stockholders charged the board members with mismanagement, diverting funds for the directors' personal benefit, and increasing their salaries to exorbitant amounts. Stockholders questioned, for example, the wisdom of an investment of "more than $1,230,843" in the stock of Reading Company, of which three Sun-shine directors were also board members. Reading stock has since dropped from a high of 9% in 1971 to a high of 31/2 in 1972 and has been running deficits of $9 per share. Says one stockbroker, "It looks like, for all practical purposes, they're well on their way to bankruptcy."
Directors' meetings, usually held in New York, were "all concerned with how to invest their money," says one company critic with access to inside information. "Most of the directors showed almost no interest in the mine. It seems like a Greek tragedy that this group is associated with this mine."
It was this management, "totally dedicated to growth through internal expansion, mergers and acquisitions," as the company boasts in its 1971 annual report, which was holding its annual stockholders' meeting in Coeur d'Alene on the morning of May 2. It must have been a difficult meeting for Irwin Underweiser. After several years of stockholders' charges that the directors were "ruining the company," Underweiser had to explain why Sunshine showed a $1.2 million loss for 1971, even though the mine itself made a profit. The losses, he explained, were due to a "write-off in securities" and lower silver prices.
But he had a glowing report for the first quarter of 1972: first quarter earnings were a healthy $122,000. "All indications are that we are definitely on the upswing," he said. But then, in the middle of the meeting, came news of the fire. In the first few days after the fire Underweiser looked pale and troubled. On May 8, however, he told an AP reporter that in spite of the lengthy shutdown the fire would certainly cause, "we may even make a profit on the closure." He said insurance would cover costs of a shutdown of up to six months. And since the mine is the largest U.S. silver producer, the closure could cause a shortage in silver, forcing prices up as much as 10 percent.
Fires are all too common in hard-rock mines, in spite of company and industry statements that such things never happen. An underground fire is to be feared, not so much because of the fire itself, but because it consumes oxygen and produces suffocating carbon monoxide gas. In a metal mine such as the Sunshine, the rock itself will not burn, but the millions of feet of timber, brought into the mine every year as support for the walls and roofs of tunnels and shafts, will burn. Until a few years ago, timbers that were no longer needed were thrown into old worked-out drifts, along with anything else the miners didn't want to haul out of the mine. Then the tunnels were sealed and the timbers left to rot. "Once they are bulkheaded off, you assume they're safe," says Marvin Chase, but he adds, "It's a worry always to everyone that someday something will happen."
Company safety engineer Bob Launhardt says the company was as prepared as it could be for a fire. He says he had "studied quite extensively in the areas of fire prevention," and found that "all major fires in hard-rock mines had been either in the intake air shaft or surface buildings. Never before in hard-rock mining had there been a major fire in other than those places." Bureau of Mines records flatly contradict Launhardt. Although shaft fires are more often deadly because the shafts are thickly timbered and flames can spread quickly, fires starting in other areas have caused major disasters. Launhardt says Sunshine had focused its fire plans on prevention of shaft fires, installing concrete doors in the shaft that could be activated by carbon monoxide detectors. "If it had been in the shaft, this fire would not have got back in the mine," he says. With that protection, and "having a second escapeway," he says, "I felt we were one of the best-prepared mines for a fire."
Perhaps so, but clearly not the best prepared for the type of fire that has often hit the Sunshine mine in the past. The Bureau of Mines has recorded at least three major fires at the mine prior to the May 2 disaster, none of them shaft fires. In 1945 a fire, apparently caused by an electrical short circuit, raged for weeks before it was finally extinguished by flooding the mine. In 1967 another fire started when two miners blasted out timbers to remove them from a raise where they were working. They left for lunch after blasting and returned to find the timbers burning. The fire filled the drift with thick smoke and was not subdued for several hours, although the mine was not evacuated.
Another electrical fire in April of 1971 burned along a power cable for eight feet, then spread into nearby timber. William Spear, an Idaho mine inspector, investigated the fire the next day. He discovered that the mine's fire alarm system-a stench gas which is manually released into the ventilation system-had not been used. It was out of order. Spear reported, in the mild manner characteristic of state and federal investigators, that "most of the people that were asked, said the matter was handled very well, but some thought an evacuation of the mine would have been in better udgment." Though he didn't say so. Spear privately thought the company should have ordered an evacuation. So did local United Steelworke president Lavern Melton, who protested to management. "The company was defensive," says Melton. "They said they told the men to stand by, and then went to see how serious the fire was. They said it would be awful silly to take all these men out and lose all that production for nothing."
Bob Launhardt studied theology in college and received his safety instruction from the industry supported National Safety Council. Miners call him "cooperative" and "conscientious" but say be is "a little bit too much company." Launhardt believes "the basic thing in accident prevention is the ability to motivate people, to motivate management. Eighty-eight percent of all accidents are the result of human oversight and ten percent are the result of physical failure-now it could be oversight on the part of management." An enlightened philosophy, but it's not carried out in practice. Sunshine's prime safety strategy has been to offer prizes to the crew for so many man-hours worked without a lost-time accident. 'They're real nice prizes," says one miner-"electric fry pans, nice sleeping bags, electric can openers." Young miners think the prizes are just so much bullshit, but older miners with families like them. The prizes don't discourage accidents, though.
In spite of the prizes, injury and fatality rates at the Sunshine mine have, since 1960, consistently exceeded national averages. Injury rates have been more than twice as high as the national average for metal mines, and rose from 61.74 injuries per million man-hours in 1960 to 126.49 in 1971. The actual number of disabling injuries (or lost-time accidents) rose from 43 a year in 1965 to 133 in 1971. It is hard to know exactly what has caused the rate to go up, but it may help to know that between 1966 and 1971, in the years since contract mining was introduced, the injury rate averaged 100.33 injuries per million man-hours, up from 86.60 for the previous six years. Launhardt blames the mine's poor record on a rapid labor turnover and unstable rock conditions in the Coeur d'Alene district. A more likely reason, say some miners, is that top management just doesn't give a damn about safety. "A safety engineer in the Sunshine mine has got about as much say as a mucker since about 1960," says Hap Fowler. "Since ol' Charley Angle [a former mine superintendent] left in 1960 our safety began to slow up. He really believed in safety and wanted men to eat it, live it, and think it. We were preached safety twenty-four hours a day. You'd get canned quicker for an unsafe mine practice than for missing a round or getting drunk and laying off. The guys talked safety among themselves. And the bosses talked safety. You don't see that anymore. Since he left it's not that way. Get that muck out, or else. Of course a boss likes to get muck. That's how he gets his reputation.
"The safety man today doesn't get any cooperation from the bosses, and he just hates to say anything and go over their heads. Still the safety guy is the fall guy if anything goes wrong. He should have the power to tramp [fire] a foreman or anything else."
At times, it gets to be too much even for the company safety engineer to take. Paul Johnson, who died in the May 2 fire, was safety engineer in 1968, but he quit after one year. His widow says he resigned because "in general he just felt like he wasn't able to go ahead and do the things he'd like to do. He didn't feel like he had the backing."
Launhardt reportedly has felt the same pressures. Lavern Melton says that more than once when he went to the safety man with complaints Launhardt responded, 'Well, you know the problems that anyone in this job has--the limitations that he has." It didn't matter how conscientiously he went about his job. Without management support he was powerless, and as a result, ineffective. The supervisors knew it and the men knew it. And the accident rates showed it. Then came May 2.
After the fire Launhardt admitted to reporters that the company had never held fire drills, or provided safety meetings of any kind for miners. If the men were concerned about the possibility of a fire, they could read the safety manual, which notes briefly: "This mine is equipped with a stench warning system. Inquire of your supervisor as to the course of action you should follow upon a fire alert." Nor were they taught how to use the self-rescuers. Explained Launhardt: "They would have to be retrained every six months or they would forget how to use them."
Astonishing as these revelations were, the big surprise was yet to come. On May 7, the company announced that ninety-three men were missing, not eighty-two, as they had previously told reporters.
The original number had been a guess; since the mine kept no surface record of who was underground, the best they could do was -count the number of miners' lamps missing from the dryhouse. The only records had been kept by the shift bosses, and most of them were still underground among the missing. The union had protested against this practice a year before, concerned that men might meet with an accident and - not be missed, but according to Lavern Melton management replied: "What we've been doing up to now has worked fine.'
In the aftermath of the fire, Sunshine Mining Company officials have maintained that the Sunshine mine is no worse than any other mine, and possibly better than most. They are fond of pointing out that Sunshine did not violate any laws in this disaster. The federal Metal and Nonmetallic Mine Safety Act of 1966 did not require fire drills, or specific evacuation procedures, or underground oxygen supplies for hoistmen, or even self-rescuers. By providing self-rescuers underground, they point out, Sunshine was far ahead of many other hard-rock mines. All true enough.
But Sunshine neglects to mention its part in shaping the absurdly lenient mine safety laws that continued to allow them to look "good" with the death of ninety-one men. During congressional hearings on the mine safety act in 1965, H. B. Johnson, then manager of the Sunshine mine and now director of health and safety for the American Mining Congress, wrote to oppose passage of the act as "an unnecessary imposition of federal regulation." "The industry is best prepared to meet the problem in this area through its own efforts," he argued.
The legislation-the first to provide (or at least promise) protection for non-coal miners-was passed and signed into law in 1966 during the Johnson Administration, but it showed the scars of heavy industry opposition, notably from the American Mining Congress. The AMC is a powerful lobbying group, well financed, hard-nosed, and effective. It represents the interests of such industries as Consolidation Coal (subsidiary of Continental Oil), Kennecott Copper, Anaconda, American Smelting and Refining, American Metal Climax, Bethlehem Steel-in short, almost every American mining interest, hard-rock and coal.
The act entrusted enforcement powers to the Interior Department's Bureau of Mines-the next closest thing to allowing the industry to police itself. The Department of the Interior, as "custodian of the Nation's natural resources," attracts special interests like flies to carrion. Its top offices are filled partly from the ranks of the mining industry and partly by political appointees. Dedicated to a philosophy of "cooperation" with industry, its officials believe in enforcing safety regulations as conservatively as possible, if at all. The new safety law fit well into the bureau's philosophy. It lacked monetary penalties, narrowly limiting enforcement provisions to the power to withdraw workers in case of "imminent danger" or for failure to abate a violation. Standards would be developed by an advisory committee appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, then Stewart Udall. The early advisory committees-there were three because Frank Memmot, the Bureau official in charge of the act and a former American Mining Congress member, had a lot of friends--delayed promulgation of standards until 1969. Under the law the standards would not go into effect for yet another year. And most of the regulations were "advisory," rather than "mandatory," and thus lacked even the feeble weight of the law.
The present committee, appointed in 1970 by then Secretary Walter Hickel, is chaired by James Boyd, chairman of the board of the Copper Range Company and an American Mining Congress spokesman. The committee meets about four times a year, but like its predecessor seldom reaches any conclusions. "If [a proposed standard] isn't unanimous, it's tabled for further discussion," explains Dr. Julian Feiss, executive secretary for the committee. Another committee member is Gordon Miner, vice president and director of the Hecla Mining Company. Hecla owns rights to 33 percent of the Sunshine mine's production and is Sunshine's largest shareholder, holding almost 4 percent of the company's widely held stock.
Secretary of the Interior Rogers C. B. Morton led the parade of department officials who flocked to the scene of the disaster. Morton expressed his sympathy to relatives of the trapped miners and commented to reporters that, "Yes, sir, this has certainly been considered a safe mine." Morton, who in 1968 was chief fund raiser for the Republican Party, also conveyed President Nixon's sympathies. (Nixon sent a telegram to the Mayor of Kellogg the same day, promising "the full spectrum of federal assistance," but later refused to declare the area a major disaster zone, which would have allowed the stricken families to receive federal aid.)
Morton's aide Lewis Helm was quickly dispatched to the mine to handle the Department's press relations. Assigned to the Office of Communications, Helm wields considerable power at Interior as Morton's chief image maker and troubleshooter. In Idaho Helm was largely successful in his mission-to create the most favorable publicity possible for the Bureau of Mines. His efforts inspired such news stories as one headlined NO MINE DANGERS SEEN in the May 4 issue of the Spokane Daily Chronicle. The story quoted Helm, reporting, "None of the several inspections in the past two years at the Sunshine Mine has indicated any potential fire hazards, a U.S. Department of the Interior spokesman said here today . . . ." In fact, the company had been cited repeatedly for violating both federal and state fire regulations, as well as explosives, electrical, ground support, and emergency escapeway standards.
Bureau of Mines deputy director Donald Schhck told a Denver Post reporter that the company and the Bureau were unprepared for the fire because "there has never been a metal-mine fire before. We've had small fires before in metal mines, but they were very minor and no one was hurt. No one ever expected a fire the size of the one that hit the Sunshine mine because there's nothing to burn in a metal mine." Schlick, a former industrial engineer for Consolidation Coal, ought to know better. Presumably he has access to Bureau statistics. In the past one hundred years since records have been kept, major metal-mine fires have averaged one every four years, and since Schlick entered his chosen field in 1953 there have been sixty-eight reported metal-mine fires.
The man directly responsible for enforcement of the law is Stanley Jarrett, the sixty-nine-year-old assistant director for metal and nonmetal mine safety. Jarrett is considered extremely knowledgeable on mine safety, and assisted in rescue operations at the mine, directing the effort that led to the rescue of Flory and Wilkinson. But an enforcer he's not. Says a Bureau source, "He's been in the business all his life and he is industry-oriented and doesn't even know it." Before joining the Bureau in 1969, Jarrett was safety engineer for Kennecott Copper. At an Idaho press conference he refused to comment on whether he thought the mine safety act should be strengthened. A few weeks later the Bureau announced stricter enforcement of the act, more inspectors, and tougher standards, but it was an obvious attempt to undermine a congressional move to "clean house" and transfer jurisdiction of hard-rock mines to the Labor Department under the relatively tougher Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970. Whoever sanctioned the press release didn't seem to be speaking for Jarrett, who told Bureau mine inspectors at a July meeting that if death and injury rates do not improve, "we'll see legislation like you've never seen, and we don't want it."
It is two months since the fire. The Interior Department's public hearing in Kellogg, Idaho, has been adjourned for lunch and Mrs. Casey Pena and Mrs. Howard Harrison, who both lost their husbands in the fire, are eating at Duff's Cafe. Even now they can think or talk of little else but the fire. The grisly details of the deaths seem to carry a special significance, the facts-real, concrete-to balance against the unknown horror, the immensity, of ninety-one men, husbands and friends, struggling in the black against an inescapable death. The women dwell on these details, recounting them at length. Mrs. Harrison, a soft-featured woman in her early thirties, recalls a conversation with a miner who helped carry the bodies out. "He says, 'You know, Alice, in one way you're lucky you didn't have to see their bodies.' He said it was the most horrifying, terrible thing he ever saw." The men were so unrecognizable, she says, that the crews had to ask the widows for identifying disfigurements. "Howard's got a scar on his neck from an accident in Sunshine"-she indicates, with her finger on her own neck, a long gash from her ear to the base of her neck-"and his foot was crushed from a cave-in at Butte. They wanted to amputate it but he wouldn't let them. It was all mangled, you know."
The women are angry that the death benefits are so low. State workmen's compensation provides a $750 burial award and a maximum $26,550 for a widow without dependent children; a maximum $35,400 with three or more children. The ninety-one men left seventy-seven widows and 181 dependent children. Three more have been born since the disaster. There are also social security benefits, a $5,000 company life insurance premium, a company-sponsored $100,000 educational fund, and a $125,000 union fund, which has been divided between widows and miners laid off by the mine shutdown. Mrs. Pena thinks the benefits should be much higher-at least provide whatever amount the worker would have made in his lifetime. She and Mrs. Harrison are two of about fifty widows represented by a group of lawyers who are considering a possible third party suit, probably against manufacturers of the self-rescuers. Sunshine cannot be sued. Idaho law provides that employers may be held liable only for workmen's compensation claims.
Many of the widows were initially reluctant to join in the legal proceedings, Mrs. Pena says, but "now everybody is calling up. They're realizing that they have a complete new life to live. They feel like they should have what's coming to them." There aren't many jobs for women in mining towns. "There's office work, clerking, waitressing, 'tramming' [a mining term for carrying or hauling] beer, and that's just about it," says one man.
The two widows carry with them the coroner's reports, funeral bills, military service records, and an announcement of a memorial service, listing the names of the dead. The coroner's report shows that Howard Harrison, age thirty-four, died of carbon monoxide asphyxiation in twenty to thirty seconds. Mrs. Harrison is skeptical of the findings. "You know what I wonder?" she says. She speaks softly, almost tenderly. "Did he die that way? Did he cry? Was he scared? Did he try to climb the walls, did he try to dig out?"
Has the disaster affected people in the valley? "Do you want to know what it was like before?" asks Mrs. Harrison. "This was the happiest, jolliest town that was ever on the face of the nation." Her eyes sparkle. "Do you know what it's like now? It's like a living graveyard. I don't think all those men were condemned to die underground. There was one man who was supposed to retire the next week after this happened. Floyd Rais."
"No, it was next April," says Mrs. Pena.
"Was it? And William Hanna was his partner. And Louis Goos, he'd been in a car wreck and the next day he went back to work. He said he had a... a... lucky-something on his shoulder. We not only lost our husbands, we lost a lot of good friends."
The people in the silver valley are trying to put the disaster behind them now-some even feel resentment that the inquiries and hearings continue. "It just opens up the wounds," one man says. "It was kind of sad for a while," another miner says, "but life goes on, you know." Men will keep on mining and in time it will again be the happiest, jolliest place, but it will never be quite the same. "The only thing that will bother me about going back to work," says Robert McCoy, "is not seeing all the old faces I've known so long. It's like you went to a party and you knew everybody in the room, and then you went into another room and it was filled with strangers. All these men, electricians, mechanics, all of them. I knew them for years."
"It hurts. It hurts," said Mrs. Mike Williams, who works at the union hall. "I don't know if we'll ever get over it."
This article available online at: