SCOTT SIMON, host:
Mining is a dark and dangerous way to make a living. Men and women go into silver mines in the hopes of hitting a vein that will bring them money even as they know that their lungs, hearts, hands and eyes pay a price each day for their brutally hard work. Miners have to worry about the extremes of heat and cold in their underground world, have to worry about sharp drills boring into their bodies, dust and sand gouging their lungs and lights going out and plunging them into a disorienting, impenetrable disabling darkness. But fire is usually not a high risk in a silver mine where the stone is dripping and wet. But on May 2nd, 1972, a fire broke out in America's richest silver mine, the Sunshine mine, in Kellogg, Idaho. The story of the scores of miners who died there and the two who unaccountably survived and the devastated community of Kellogg is told in Gregg Olsen's new book, "The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine." Gregg Olsen joins us now from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. GREGG OLSEN (Author, "The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine"): Oh, I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: We all have some intellectual idea, those of us who've never mined for a living, that silver mining must be dangerous. But your book really presents not just an underworld but kind of a netherworld. There's something hellish about it. For one thing, as you say, silver mines, at least this one, were a lot deeper than I think a lot of us know.
Mr. OLSEN: Coal mines are what really are frame of reference usually when we think about mining in this country and they're not that deep. You know, they're hundreds, maybe a thousand feet deep down. But in the silver mines of the Couer d'Alenes, which is in northern Idaho, some of them go as deep as 9,000 feet, and that's astonishing when you think about it. That's almost two miles down. Think about your local landmark, wherever you might live. I looked up at the Space Needle in Seattle. That's only 600 feet, but can you imagine something 10 times that deep into the ground? And that's where these guys are working.
SIMON: May 2nd, 1972, people could see smoke coming out of the mine, but in and of itself, that wasn't a danger sign, right?
Mr. OLSEN: That's right. I mean, they really didn't think anything could burn down underground. It is hot underground, but it's very damp. The timbers down there are soaked in water practically, so when smoke started coming out of that mine and seeping through the vast, vast world of the underground down there, they weren't that alarmed. They thought, `Hm, this is just a motor fire,' or, `This is just a little piece of trash or something that caught ablaze and we'll put it out quickly and we'll all go back to work.'
SIMON: When did they begin to know that a real disaster had occurred underground?
Mr. OLSEN: You know, it took probably about a half an hour when the first guys that were trying to source that smoke, 'cause that's what you do obviously to fight a fire, you need to know where it's coming from. So I say about a half an hour into it, they really needed to get the guys out of there. And, unfortunately, you know, the irony of the whole thing was that no management was there. They were all at the shareholders' meeting, you know, 45 minutes away. So there was no one to call for the evacuation, and that took some time.
SIMON: Among the astonishing little details or not so little details in your book is the fact that they didn't even really know there were 173 men down there, at least not specifically and certainly didn't know who.
Mr. OLSEN: There was no check-in procedure or check-out procedure to know who was underground or where they were. So it made it very difficult to decide, you know, which point of entry do we go in when we go after these men?
SIMON: They didn't know where people were. They didn't even really know their identities, did they?
Mr. OLSEN: These guys, they all sort of knew each other by sight, and they knew everyone's nickname. Everybody in mining had a nickname, but their given name was something that was often a mystery to folks.
SIMON: People would, like, borrow each other's equipment and tools and stuff and so you wouldn't necessarily tell just because someone's equipment was safe and hanging up that they were necessarily safe also.
Mr. OLSEN: They all changed obviously into their work clothes, their diggers as they call them, when they come into the mine. And those clothes were left behind and their were camp lamps, you know, which they are--the batteries are charged at night. So some guys, you know, if my battery wasn't working, I'd grab another one. So there really was no way to say exactly who was underground until you saw who was missing the next day.
SIMON: People were ultimately able to determine that the vast majority of miners died astonishingly rapidly and maybe not even in knowledge of the fact that they were in danger. Would that be fair to say?
Mr. OLSEN: I think that's fair on quite a few men. There are stories of the rescue workers, you know, that went underground and they did find, you know, the bodies in little groups where there would be, you know, a guy holding a coffee cup or a guy sitting back with his arms folded like he was just waiting something out, not knowing how toxic that smoke was. But I will tell you that there were a lot of heroics going on underground, too. Lots of men were fighting as if everything depended on it, and, of course, it did. They wanted to get out. They knew they were in trouble, but there was no way out.
SIMON: I want to get you to talk about the two men who survived, Ron Flory and Tom Wilkinson, partners, good friends.
Mr. OLSEN: Yeah, they were buddies, and they were working down on the 4,800 level, which was a very productive level at that time in 1972. They'd been down in that ...(unintelligible) for about a year. And, you know, a guy told them, `You'd better come out now. I think there's a fire. We need to evacuate.' So they got with the other guys on their level, but the smoke came and the nine other guys that were standing around with Tom and Ron eventually succumbed to the smoke, and Tom passed out. Ron carried him off to an area where they knew there was fresh air coming in from a bore hole that had been completed not long before the fire, in fact a week before the fire. And it's really Tom's passing out and Ron carrying him back to safety that saved both of their lives.
SIMON: They were convinced that rescuers would come and find them because they were in one of the most productive parts of the mine. And just--they felt, `Look, they're not going to seal off this area 'cause it's too lucrative.'
Mr. OLSEN: Right. They knew eventually someone would get down there, but, you know, they waited day after day after day. They really didn't know how long they could wait. It was hot, you know, over a hundred degrees. They had lots of water. They had very little food, and they waited it out hoping that whenever they could get to that level, they'd still be in good shape and be able to get out.
SIMON: They had plenty of water because there was a waterline. But after a while, a man needs to eat.
Mr. OLSEN: Right. And that was, you know, that was on their minds. These are big guys, especially Ron, who's a big burly guy, and he was hungry. They had their lunches, what was left over from their own meal that day on May 2nd, but at some point, they thought, `You know what? We better go back there and get the lunches that belonged to the other guys. We need to eat.' And they debated that. They thought, `Well, is this the right thing for us to do? I mean, the other guys are dead.'
SIMON: These are the lunches of dead men.
Mr. OLSEN: That's right. So they're about a hundred yards away and they make the big glory run to get those lunches. And all they got, really, was a, you know, there was an Idaho Spud candy bar, a terrible tuna fish sandwich and a Hunt's Snack Pack pudding, which, by the way, they decided to save that for the end.
SIMON: As these two men were struggling to survive below the ground, on top of the ground, there was, at that point, it had become an internationally recognized effort to try and find out if anyone was alive and try and find them. The results of the process of identification of bodies going on and, alas, it's one of the more unpleasant things to contemplate, but you describe a situation where widows come to the company office to pick up that last check and find they have some competition for it.
Mr. OLSEN: When someone dies, all the secrets come out and, you know, miners had their share of them, that's for sure. And there were several of them that had been married and didn't think to get divorced before they got the next wedding going. There were lots of that sort of thing that, you know, just shocked the bookkeeper and the accountant people who were the more white collar, whatever, people of the--that worked in the mines. There was competition. And you know what? There were women who had never known their husbands--at least hadn't been with their husbands for a dozen years that came to try to collect. So it brought out, obviously, the worst in a lot of people, but in most cases, I think the best.
SIMON: Can we say with confidence all these years later what started that fire?
Mr. OLSEN: You know, that's the great mystery. We don't know. We don't know if it was a hot rock ball that had fallen down cause men were welding right near there. We don't know if some guy was smoking. You know, that's a possibility 'cause they smoked underground all the time. We just don't know what was the source of that fire, and we never will.
SIMON: Ron Flory and Tom Wilkinson, the two survivors, had some tough times in that town after they survived. They came up and were, understandably, ecstatic and decided, well, you know, the rest of our lives are gravy from here on out. We've been given this unaccountable gift. But it was--they suffered what I think we would fairly identify as survivor syndrome.
Mr. OLSEN: It's a really tough thing, I mean, especially for Ron because Ron lived there still and Smelterville was just this one town over from Kellogg. When he walks through the street, everybody knows he's a survivor. He's one of the two, and they look at him and they feel just a little bit sad that it's not their man that's walking in his place.
SIMON: Wasn't he slapped once?
Mr. OLSEN: Oh, yeah. A woman came up to him in a bar and said, `You know, my husband would have survived if you hadn't eaten his lunch.' And she walloped him right across the face. The lunch bucket thing is really interesting. It's such a small thing, Scott. You know, to you and me, we'd think, `Oh, so what. Who cares.' But for some reason, the fact that they went and got those lunch buckets was a huge deal to a lot of people. You know, `How dare they go out there and get that when it belonged to my man?' I can't explain it.
SIMON: Kellogg is a smaller, a diminished place these days?
Mr. OLSEN: Kellogg's trying. They're really trying to make themselves a tourist attraction. They've built a huge, huge gondola and they've got a ski run there. And they're actually building some condos now. You know, a lot of the people who live there, though, they just kind of smirk at that a little bit because they feel they're a mining town, and they want to be a mining town. And they're hopeful now with silver prices going up that some of the mines that have been closed, like Sunshine, will reopen again because the wages that you get, you know, running a lift or working in a restaurant are nothing like you'd get when you're out there working underground.
SIMON: The fire burned for months really. And then the mine was closed down and didn't open up for how long?
Mr. OLSEN: It took about seven months before they could get clearance from the government really to open up the mines.
SIMON: How could people go back into that mine after what happened?
Mr. OLSEN: I will tell you that quite a few left, decided, you know, `This isn't for me anymore.' But I would say probably 90 percent of them said, `This is who I am. I mean, I'm a miner before I'm a man. I'm a miner before I'm a dad. This is what I know. This is what my dad did. This is my life.' You can't give that up easily. You can't go and pump gas if you have no other skill. As a miner, they knew mining, backwards and forwards, but they didn't know much else.
SIMON: Mr. Olsen, thank you very much.
Mr. OLSEN: Oh, thank you so much for having me on.
SIMON: Gregg Olsen, his new book is "The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine." You can read the first chapter of Mr. Olsen's book on our Web site at npr.org.
And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.