Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Ninety-One Miners Killed in Sunshine Mine Disaster [otd 05/02]

On the morning of May 2, 1972, workers deep inside Idaho’s Sunshine Mine, 4 to 5 miles southeast of Kellogg, noticed smoke drifting in some of the tunnels. Not much concerned initially, the miners soon encountered thick, choking clouds that burned their eyes and throats. This was the start of a tragedy that profoundly changed the American mining industry.
Silver bars, Coeur d'Alene District. Hecla Mining Company.

The Sunshine Mine traces its “lineage” back to the Yankee Lode, claimed by the Blake Brothers – Dennis and True – in 1884. The brothers told the 1900 U. S. Census taker for Shoshone County that they came to this country from England in 1870. They were farming along Big Creek when they discovered an outcrop of the Yankee Lode. The brothers worked the lode by themselves for about twenty years before leasing it to other interests. Apparently several different operators worked the Yankee as the brothers passed on, True in 1910 and Dennis in 1921. By 1922, the property belonged to the Sunshine Mining Company, which had consolidated it with around fifteen other claims.

The Company’s operations attained only modest success until the discovery of a deep-level silver bonanza in the early 1930s. By 1938, one shaft into the rich find was down past three thousand feet. Over the following decades, miners drilled and blasted deeper into the ridge, extracting fabulous amounts of the metal. In 1972, the Company had over 400 men who worked underground, split into three round-the-clock shifts.

Miners figured the money made up for the known risks. The official U. S. minimum wage was $1.60 an hour, or $64 for a forty-hour week. In the mines, even a “common” laborer could make $250 a week. Rock bursts, cave-ins, and equipment mishaps all took their toll … but no one worried about fire: “hard-rock mines don’t burn.”

Flashes in strained electrical gear happened fairly often, and blasting was part of the work. Miners accepted the resulting smoke streams as normal. However, by around 11:40 on the morning of the 2nd, groups of miners in many parts of the mine knew that this was no ordinary, short-lived flare-up. Men hurried out, helping those who were affected. Later, a survivor, in re-living the moment, said, “The smoke was so think … sometimes you actually can’t see your hand in front of your face.”

Unfortunately, within an hour, perhaps half the underground crewmen were already dead or dying.

Around 1 o’clock, teams headed back down and rescued a few men. After that, they found only bodies until two final survivors came up a week later. In the end, 91 miners died from the combination of smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning. Today, not far off the Interstate, visitors can read the names of the victims, posted on the base of a Disaster Memorial statue.

Disaster survivor.
Frame captured from NIOSH video.
To this day, analysts are not entirely sure what caused the fire. Still, changes implemented in the fire’s aftermath – new procedures, better equipment, and greatly expanded training – have measurably improved mine safety. Hopefully, this country will never again have to deal with a calamity as terrible as the Sunshine Mine disaster.

In 2002, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a video that provides an overview of the disaster. In addition to historic still photos, the video includes on-location reenactments and interviews with over two dozen survivors. Video: You Are My Sunshine.
References: Derek Rance, Dr. K. Warren Geiger, Technical Report on the Sunshine Mine, Behre Dolbear & Company, Inc., Denver, Colorado (2007).
Gregg Olsen, The Deep Dark:Disaster and Redemption in America’s Richest Silver Mine, Crown Publishers, New York (2005).
Sunshine Mine Fire, United States Mine Rescue Association, Uniontown, Pennsylvania
"Sunshine Mining Company," Manuscript Group 275, Special Collections, University of Idaho (1995).

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