Tom Watts was a mile underground and thinking about lunch when he smelled smoke inside the Silver Valley’s Sunshine Mine.
Choking on carbon monoxide, he scrambled to the “skip” - an elevator basket - and rode upward to safety. About 15 men followed him out.
They would be among the last to escape.
Twenty-four years ago today, the Sunshine Mine blaze killed 91 workers, making it the nation’s worst hardrock mining disaster since 1917. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at Big Creek.
Much changed after that fire: The federal Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration was created and miners were required to carry breathing devices and know how to use them.
This year, the tribute to the darkest day in Shoshone County history comes on the heels of good economic news.
Silver Valley residents are facing their brightest future in years, with the recent announcements that three mines will reopen and hire new workers. A Spokane company even plans to invest $40 million developing Bunker Hill, the flagship metals producer that employed thousands of workers before the mine’s owners went bankrupt in 1981.
But, because of a decades-long string of bad luck after the 1972 fire, most Silver Valley residents don’t hold unrealistic hopes. They’ve endured floods, environmental contamination from Bunker Hill’s smelters, and years of double-digit unemployment.
“It’ll never be like it was,” Watts said.
At the time of the accident, Sunshine Mine was well on its way to becoming the world’s largest primary silver-producing mine.
“It was easy to find a job,” said Ken Dionne, 45. “And if you didn’t like the one you had, you went to work across town.”
Then 21, Dionne was working at AT&T; in Denver, but his father, brother and cousin worked at the Sunshine.
When the fire started, all three were among the 173 miners underground.
At 12:40 p.m., underground electricians noticed the smoke and began evacuating.
“My brother was one of the first ones out,” Dionne said. “But he went back in to help others.”
Greg Dionne, among the few miners who knew how to use a complex breathing device, rode down into the smoke-filled chambers, showing coughing miners how to use their respirators.
The fire spread quickly and by 1 p.m. the last elevator was raised. Greg Dionne wasn’t on it.
“He and my cousin both died,” Ken Dionne said. “Nobody really knows how.”
Ruth Hussa, 80, was teaching fourth grade in Osburn that week when the news came over the television “like a shot.” She spent the week collecting canned food for families and worrying about her principal and his wife.
“She stayed up there and waited and waited and waited for their son to come out,” Hussa said. “But he never did.”
It was more than a week before Ron Flory, now 52, saw the sun again.
Flory and Tom Wilkinson remained trapped in an underground air pocket for eight days before rescue workers found them. They took turns sleeping to keep an eye on the smoke, and survived by nabbing tuna sandwiches from their dead colleagues’ lunch boxes.
Flory, who lives in Smelterville, has retold his story countless times, but says “it doesn’t come up much anymore.”
“It’s just something that happened,” he said. “I was really lucky.”
He, too, returned to the mines for several years before a 1990 car accident sent him to the burn unit for eight weeks and left him disabled.
John Amonson, who runs the Wallace Mining Museum, said the tragedy “put the valley on its emotional knees.”
“There are certain scars that will never heal,” he said. But, here “people were able to get on with their lives.”
Watts, 68, is retired and remains in Kellogg. While he has missed only one memorial service in the past two dozen years, he didn’t plan to attend today’s. He is busy working on a friend’s land in Montana.
“You can’t think too much about it,” he said. “It’s just the way things are.”
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