"Deep Dark" explores human toll of Idaho's worst disaster
On May 2, 1972, fire broke out in Kellogg, Idaho's, Sunshine Mine. The cause and location, among the maze of shafts and tunnels more than...
Special to The Seattle Times;
On May 2, 1972, fire broke out in Kellogg, Idaho's, Sunshine Mine. The cause and location, among the maze of shafts and tunnels more than a mile deep and long, were unknown. But since Sunshine was a "hard-
rock" silver mine blasted from stone, not flammable coal, no one paid much attention to the smoke. A lot of things caused smoke occasionally, and besides, everyone thought, nothing could burn down there. Shoring timbers might be suspect if they had not been soaked with water that helped cool the air.
Miners, paid by their daily output, kept working. The safety engineer had already made a morning check and, unlike most days spent underground, went topside before any clear sign of trouble. Management officials were attending the annual stockholders' meeting in Coeur d'Alene. Even when a sense of the problem's seriousness emerged, no one had the authority or wanted to assume the responsibility for ordering a costly, official evacuation.
In his seventh book, "The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine" (Crown, 321 pp., $24.95), Gregg Olsen, an investigative reporter for more than 20 years and recipient of numerous awards, tells a vividly detailed, heartbreaking tale about a dark, alien place, the people who loved working there and a town that has never been the same.
Gregg Olsen will read from "The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine," 7 p.m. Wednesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle, free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com); 7 p.m. Thursday, Barnes & Noble, 19401 Alderwood Mall Parkway, Lynnwood, free (425-771-2220); and 7 p.m. March 22, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
The first two-thirds of his account center on May 2, meticulously detailing activities both below ground and above, interweaving biographies for many of the workmen and their families with basics about mining. While thorough, Olsen's writing is neither cumbersome nor bogged down with lengthy explanations. He conveys how "every day was an adrenaline fix ... a rush, with blasts shaking the mine, rock tumbling down, and the certainty that anything could happen." He brings to life the hot, dirty, treasure-hunt environment where "danger was a miner's heroin." For when precious-metals prices rose, these men could make a very good living indeed.
Most, however, "might have enough money for a new truck every year, but they didn't see the value of regular visits to a dentist." Theirs was an easy-come, easy-go lifestyle, often with few other opportunities.
"Sunshine liked having its miners in debt and close at hand," Olsen notes. "Dumping" (skipping) shifts was common, turnover high and identifying who actually showed up not done at all. On May 2, it took much of the day to learn that 425 of 522 employees had worked varying shifts. Eighty-one escaped, but another week passed before it was known 93 others had been trapped. All but two, who were 4,800 feet down, quickly died.
What started the fire? What burned and why was its smoke so dense? Why didn't the miners know evacuation routes, have access to functioning "self rescuers" (oxygen), or training in how to use them? Why didn't the lift operator work in an airtight booth with a separate, safe air supply? Why weren't comments about headaches and smoke in previous days investigated? Why weren't names of the dead released to families? Why were carbon monoxide readings high? Even after Sunshine was pegged "as one of the worst safety offenders in the country," why did violations go uncorrected? Why were there never fire drills or even a current, accurate map of the mine itself?
Olsen's thoroughly-researched portrait of what went wrong is all the more chilling because it's yet another instance of the bottom line taking precedence over safety. In all, 77 women were widowed and more than 200 children lost their fathers. To this day, the cause of "the worst disaster in Idaho history" is unclear. A welding spark? A cigarette? A short circuit? Even arson by a disgruntled employee can't be ruled out.
In his epilogue, Olsen identifies another factor — I won't give it away since he didn't — which both regulators and the industry ignored. Too late, government reforms began. Sunshine "had given up more than 300 million ounces of silver — one-fifth of America's total output," yet never recovered from its human losses. The mine closed in 2001.