May 2 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history. In 1972, a fire broke out underground at the Sunshine Mine in Kellogg, Idaho; 91 men died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The disaster had a devastating effect on Kellogg and the nearby communities in Idaho’s Silver Valley. People who were there still vividly remember the events of that day.
Forty years ago, the channels of communications were nothing like they are today. When the fire started underground at the Sunshine Mine, Kathy Atha didn’t hear about it on the news or on Twitter. She was at her job, at the First Nation Bank in Pinehurst, a few miles west of Kellogg.
The Jewell shaft was where air entered the mine. Photo courtesy MSHA.gov
“It was in the afternoon, three or four o’clock in the afternoon," Atha recalls. "A gentleman came into the bank. He was very agitated, he was upset, and he said the Sunshine Mine was on fire. I called my husband. He worked for Bunker Hill mine at the time and I told him. He said, ‘It’s a hard rock mine. What’s going to burn?’"
"Then we got home and we started seeing the news reports and we just really realized the magnitude of the whole situation and immediately started hearing about those who had died.”
Word spread through the community. Rescue crews responded. People waited for any kind of word they could. When it was safe — and it was known that men had died — Don Grebil went to work.
“And I hauled 95 percent of the bodies that come off from that to the mortuary in Kellogg in my truck, my brother and I," Grebil says. "And we’d come back and wait. They’d bring some more up and we’d put them back in my truck and I’d haul ‘em back into Kellogg."
Bob Launhardt was Sunshine Mine’s safety engineer.
"Whew. They’re all ... what do you say? ... customers of mine. Everybody was wondering what I was doing there. They thought I was bringing supplies, but I was hauling bodies.”
The community, not just Kellogg, but the whole Silver Valley, grieved. Some people still grieve today for the events of 40 years ago.
Life went on. Widows and children who were orphaned eventually were awarded death benefits by the state of Idaho. Legislators changed mining laws to require safety training and new safety equipment in mines. Inspections became more frequent.
Lawyers went into action. Bob Launhardt was working as Sunshine Mine’s safety engineer at the time of the fire.
“There were two lawsuits filed," Launhardt says. "The first one was filed by attorneys representing the widows and the children against the Mine Safety Appliance company, Dow Chemical, Mobay Chemical and a few others. They received a $6.5 million settlement."
"Sunshine’s litigation was against the U.S. government, Bureau of Mines, Dow Chemical, Mobay Chemical, Mine Safety Appliance company, for marketing a product that was hazardous and marketing it as being — and it was — certified safe for use in underground mines: Polyurethane foam. It not only puts out an order of magnitude more carbon monoxide per pound burning than wood, but it also puts out hydrogen cyanide, which will paralyze people so they cannot escape.”
After the fire, Launhardt was still employed by the Sunshine Mine and spent a major part of his time doing investigative work for attorneys regarding combustion and polyurethane foam. He believes that polyurethane foam was a major contributor to the lethal nature of the fire and continues to research and publish papers and articles in support of his belief.
At the time of the fire, Elaine Cullen worked for the Bureau of Mines.
“I remember that as a time of total chaos," she says. "But I wasn’t connected to it until 29 years later.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Niosh) needed training materials for mine rescue teams. Cullen was well known and widely respected for her training videos, so she was selected to create new safety films.
She thought that the Sunshine would make a great backdrop for her film. She wanted to interview the Sunshine Miners because their stories would underscore the importance of mine safety.
Elaine Cullen made a training video based on the disaster at Sunshine Mine.
“Because the ‘Shine was the hottest of the mines and it was also the most rockburst prone, the Sunshine miners were known in the valley as the big dogs in the fight," Cullen recalls. "I mean, if you wanted a tough miner, it was a ‘Shine guy. And the first guy that I interviewed broke down and sobbed. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ I said, ‘We’re not making a training video anymore. We have a sacred trust here. They’re trusting us with stories and trusting us to do something about it.’"
"And I asked them, ‘What do you hope comes out of this?’ And they said, “That you will tell everyone and this will never happen again and no one will have to go through what we went through.’ And I knew this is going to be my life’s work. This is going to be my dissertation. This is going to be what I do. This is a turning point. It was one of the ‘T’s in the road, you know?”
Cullen says her training video became a tribute to the Sunshine miners and changed her life, just as the disaster changed the lives of thousands of others in north Idaho’s Silver Valley.
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