Wednesday, August 22, 2007

1972 Sunshine Mining Company Mining Disaster

1972 Sunshine Mining Company Mining DisasterKellogg, Idaho

On May 2, 1972, one hundred and seventy-three men began work at 7:00 a.m. at the Sunshine silver mine, about 8 miles east of Kellogg, Shoshone County, Idaho.

The mine produced silver, copper and antimony. It was first opened in the 19th century. On this date, the principal operating officials of the Sunshine Mining Company were in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, about 45 miles away, attending their annual stockholders' meeting. During their absence, surface and underground foremen were responsible for the activities of their own crews, with no designated individual in charge of the entire operation. Shortly after lunch, about 11:40 a.m., two electricians stepped out of the electric shop on the 3700 level, smelled smoke, and shouted a warning.

A miner and a foreman came out of the Blue Room (underground foremen's office) and the four men started in the direction of the smoke. They followed the smoke 800 feet west toward the Jewell Shaft until they reached the 910 raise, a vertical shaft which went up 300 feet through old, worked-out portions of the mine. There, the smoke was very heavy, but they couldn't tell where it was coming from. One of the miners climbed up onto drift timber below the raise but was unable to detect fire. The miners closed the fire door near the Jewell shaft.

The 3700 level housed the underground foremen's office, the maintenance shops, electric shop, pipe shop, drill shop, machine shop, and the warehouse. Both the 3100 level and 3700 level haulage drifts served as main fresh air intakes to the stope area below the 3700 level near the No. 10 shaft, where most of the men were working. At about 11:45 a.m., a mechanic received a phone call in the machine shop. He was asked if a fire was burning in the shop area. He and his partner, knowing there was no fire in the shop, went from the shop toward the 808 and 820 drifts. They discovered the 820 crosscut was so full of smoke they could not enter. At he 808 drift, they found smoke so thick they could travel but a few feet. They attempted to retreat toward the machine shop, but heavy smoke encountered in the 820 crosscut made it impossible. Although foreman Harvey Dionne had closed the fire door, he went back to make sure it was closed and to prepare for evacuation at the Jewell Shaft. After returning to the Jewell Shaft, he made the decision to remove restrictions over the No. 12 borehole to allow more fresh air to reach the lower levels.

There were two hoists in the No. 10 shaft, the "chippy" hoist" on the 3700 foot level which could haul as many as forty-eight men at a time, and the double-drum hoist on the 3100 level, a thousand-horsepower machine, newly installed, and tricky to operate. It was used to haul muck, ore and rock, and was also equipped with a twelve-man cage. All morning two operators sat in the control booth of the underground hoist room hauling muck buckets up and down the shaft according to bell signals from the cager who supervised the muck loading a half mile below. Just after noon the operator got a phone call from a shaft crew on the 4400 level. The crew had smelled smoke in the shaft. They signaled for the 3700 chippy hoist to come get them. It did not come and no one answered in the hoist room. They called the double-drum hoist operator to ask what was wrong with the chippy hoist. They learned that because of the dense smoke between the 910 raise and the No. 10 shaft, the hoist man operating the No. 10 shaft chippy hoist on the 3700 level was unable to see the controls and was forced to abandon the hoist room. The safety engineer went to the compressor room and activated the stench warning system. He completed the task by 12:05 p.m. and requested several men to take the McCaa breathing apparatus to the 3100 No. 10 station. In the meantime, the maintenance foreman had gone to the double-drum hoist man and inquired if he was evacuating the men from the mine. When he found that the hoist man was unaware of the emergency and was still pulling muck, he ordered the cager to make the necessary changes and to start hoisting the men from the 3100 level.

Most workers became aware of fire when smoke entered their workplaces. In some instances, men were dispatched to relay verbal warnings to others in remote locations. Within a short time of detecting the smoke, most of the workers made their way to the No. 10 shaft station in hopes of escaping. The first load of men was hoisted at 12:10 p.m. About 12 men rode the cage from the 3700 level to the 3100 level, including men who had ridden up from the 4500 level. The men hoisted from the lower levels of the mine were directed to travel to the Jewell shaft via the 3100 level to be hoisted to the surface. Gene Johnson had remained at the 3100 station to direct the crews to the Jewell station instead of the Silver Summit escapeway, which was contaminated with toxic gases.

The Jewell shaft was where air entered the mine. It was sucked east through the 3100 and 3700 drifts and down the No. 10 shaft. East of the No. 10 shaft, fans forced the air up through the workings and out the Silver Summit emergency exit on the 3100 level. The fire was in the worst place, on the intake air side of the mine. It was feeding deadly smoke and carbon monoxide gas into the main airways, contaminating air which circulated through almost the entire mine and making the Silver Summit exit useless. There was no escape, except through the smoke to the Jewell shaft.With the chippy hoist out and the 3700 level blocked by smoke, and with over a hundred men still underground, the situation was critical. The cage was crammed with miners that took them to the 3100 level, where another tunnel led to the Jewell shaft. The small cage made the process very slow. Each round trip, with the small load of men, took precious time while the deadly carbon monoxide gas and smoke spread quickly down the shaft and through the mine.

Between 12:10 and 12:50 p.m. men were transported from the 5800, 5600, 5400, and 5000 stations. All men on the 5800 and 5600 level were aboard the last skip and traveled to the 3100 level. When the men from the 5400, 5600, and 5800 levels arrived at the 3100 station at 1:02 p.m., they were weak from the fumes. The three foremen directing the evacuation on the 3100 level were either dead or passed out, as was the cager. It is not known if the men knew the way out or received instructions as to the escape route to the Jewell Shaft. None of the men working on the 4200, 5200, 5400, 5600, and 5800 levels survived.

Some of the men reported they had difficulty using the self-rescuers obtained from storage boxes on shaft stations and discarded them, while others used them successfully. Many men who succeeded in reaching the 3100 level were overcome by carbon monoxide and smoke and died. Thirty-one died on the hoist room floor.

All hoisting at the No. 10 shaft ceased at 1:02 p.m., when the double-drum hoist man was overcome. While the men on the lower levels attempted unsuccessfully to communicate with the hoist man, a few on the 5200 level tried to build a barricade in a tail drift just off the station. They died from carbon monoxide exposure before completing the job.

Two men were standing by on the telephone on the 3400 level, requesting permission to stop the main exhaust fans on that level. They realized that the operation of these fans was a critical factor in forcing smoke and carbon monoxide through the mine. The order to stop the fans was never issued. Consequently, the fans were never stopped and the two men perished while waiting. Before the evacuation was halted by the death of the No. 10 shaft hoist man, eighty men escaped from the mine. None of the survivors reported seeing fire or flames. Ninety-one men died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Of the ones trapped below when the hoist stopped, only two men survived.

Nearly 100 trained rescue personnel from seven other mines in the U.S. and Canada began arriving at the Sunshine Mine about 2 p.m. on May 2. Several rescue attempts were made by trained rescue crews later in the day, but were unsuccessful. One of the first crews recovered five bodies along the 3700 level drift. Mine rescue efforts continued and the task of recovering bodies continued during the succeeding days.

Shortly after 9 p.m. on May 8, the first two-man crew was lowered into the No. 12 borehole in the rescue capsule. The borehole was irregular and rough, and contained many slabs of loose rock. As the men were lowered, they scaled loose rock. Other crews followed, scaling the walls of the hole. After the crews reached a depth of 580 feet, conditions improved and the manned capsule reached the 4800 level shortly after 7 a.m. on May 9. A new crew with equipment was lowered and began exploring the 4800 level for survivors. This crew searched the area around the bottom of the borehole and the drifts west and east of the hole for a distance of 1,000 feet in each direction before they made the ascent back to the 3700 level. Another rescue crew was lowered and started to search the remaining areas on the 4800 level east of the borehole,At 5:43 p.m., May 9, they found two miners, Tom Wilkinson and Ron Flory, alive and in good condition at a diamond drill station, 1,800 feet west of the No. 10 shaft. They were taken to the No. 12 borehole and hoisted. They were the last survivors found in the mine.

Ron Flory and Tom Wilkinson had waited at the 4800 shaft station with other miners, but as the smoke kept billowing down the shaft, they ran back into the drift. They explored the far west end of the Syndicate drift looking for the No. 12 borehole. For seven days they waited until they were found by rescuers. If Harvey Dionne had not taken it upon himself to remove the lagging from the top of the No. 12 borehole to permit air to course down the 4800 level, it is almost certain that Flory and Wilkinson would have died from the carbon monoxide.

The Bureau of Mines believes the probable cause of the fire was spontaneous combustion of refuse near scrap timber used to backfill worked out stopes. Extensive ground falls and caving occurred in the immediate area when timber supports were consumed, making investigation of the entire fire area impossible.The Sunshine mine fire was the largest disaster in the hard-rock mining industry since the 1917 mine fire in Butte, Montana, which took one hundred and sixty-three lives.

Sunshine Mine Memorial
Location: Northern Idaho, Exit 54 off I-90 near Kellogg, Idaho The statue stands at the mouth of the Big Creek Canyon in the hills of Northern Idaho. The metal-sculpted hard rock miner eternally beams his cap lamp toward the site of one of America's worst mining disasters. On a late Spring day in 1972 at the Sunshine Mine, ninety-one miners were killed by a large underground fire. The statue is the creation of Ken Lonn of Auburn, Washington. Mr. Lonn is a former miner and shift boss at the Sunshine mine. He worked at the "Shine" after the fire and sculpted the statue in the plant at the mine site. He is currently retired from mining and is a self employed sculptor and painter. A poem written by Phil Batt, former state senator and recently retired governor of Idaho is on the base of the statue along with the names of the ninety-one miners killed in the disaster. The statue is 12 ½ feet tall. A miner's day ceremony is held on the second day of May each year to honor the men who died at the Sunshine Mine. The statue is visible from I-90.