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Archive for Sunday, April 17, 2005

New book puts human face on Sunshine Mine disaster

April 17, 2005

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— When fire broke out in Idaho's Sunshine Mine in 1972, there was little panic. Miners knew there wasn't much to burn a mile down a wet mine. But deadly carbon monoxide killed 91 men in one of the nation's worst mining accidents.

A new book, "The Deep Dark," provides a gruesome moment-by-moment account of the disaster that began on May 2, 1972, when unexplained smoke began pouring out of the mine near Kellogg, Idaho.

Three decades after the fire, author Gregg Olsen found that many residents of the Silver Valley remain scarred by a tragedy that left some 200 children without fathers, and prompted big changes in the nation's mining laws.

"The most difficult thing was talking with the people and crying with those people as they told me stories they kept inside for 30 years," Olsen said.

The nation was gripped for a week by efforts to rescue the 93 miners who were trapped underground by the fire. People didn't realize that many of the miners dropped dead where they were working as toxic smoke overcame them almost instantly.

Only two of the 93 men trapped inside the mine made it out alive. Ron Flory and Tom Wilkinson were 4,000 feet below the surface when the fire broke out. They went lower, where they found a pocket of fresh air. They stayed there for a week, suffering from fear and hunger, before they were found on May 10.

Olsen said the two were lucky to stumble into some fresh air. From nearly the moment they were rescued, Flory and Wilkinson faced irrational resentment and anger from the families of men who died, Olsen found. Flory went back to mining and retired several years ago with a medical disability. Wilkinson left mining after the fire to work for the Forest Service, Olsen wrote.

The book at times has a ghoulish quality, with horrifying descriptions of the oozing bodies of the victims being discovered by rescuers in the hot, wet mine.

"The bodies had ceased to look like men, their features exaggerated far beyond the bounds of recognition," he wrote. "Eyes bulged grotesquely. Teeth seemed to push forward, as if they were wrong side out. Ears had swollen to twice normal size."

Friends and relatives of miners trapped underground during the
Sunshine Mine fire wait for word in this file photo from May 1972,
in Kellogg, Idaho. Seattle author Gregg Olsen has written the book
"The Deep Dark," which tells the story of the disaster that claimed
91 lives.

Friends and relatives of miners trapped underground during the Sunshine Mine fire wait for word in this file photo from May 1972, in Kellogg, Idaho. Seattle author Gregg Olsen has written the book "The Deep Dark," which tells the story of the disaster that claimed 91 lives.

Flesh peeled off bodies as they were lifted by rescuers. Many of the miners could be identified only by their clothes or the stickers on their helmets.

For Olsen, the book was a welcome change from his previous volume, an account of the lurid affair between teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and her former sixth-grade pupil, Vili Fualaau.

Olsen had long been haunted by the disaster, which is memorialized by a poignant sculpture near the mine along Interstate 90. When he began researching the story, he was surprised to find that no comprehensive account existed. He spent four years interviewing 200 survivors, family members, executives, government regulators and others, and his book weaves in the story of what was going on at home while the fire was burning in the mine.

The disaster's cause has never been established, but the fire prompted the abolition of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which was considered too friendly with mining companies, and led to the creation of new agencies more concerned with worker safety.

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