April 27, 1997 in Nation/World

Tragedy’s Silver Anniversary Hard Rock Miners Recall Deadly Fire At The Sunshine Mine

By The Spokesman-Review
 

It started as an afternoon like most others, or so it seemed to Larry Evans, a miner on his way to work a quarter-century ago this week.

“I was getting ready to go in on the 3 to 11,” Evans recalled recently. “I seen some fellow night shift guys at the Post Office and they said there’d been a fire at the mine.

“To me, that meant a day off.”

Spirits lifted, the 26-year-old Evans headed toward work, just in case. He’d check in, check out, perhaps go camping.

But he quickly saw something was wrong.

As Evans approached the mine, people milled about. Faces were long, furrowed. Supervisors seemed frantic, scared.

“There was a lot of hustling going on, but there wasn’t much talking,” Evans said. “Nobody was saying nothing. Then I learned someone was dead.”

It would be several days before all of the bodies were discovered.

On May 2, 1972, an underground fire broke out at Shoshone County’s Sunshine Mine, then the world’s richest silver producer.

The blaze killed 91 workers, making it the nation’s worst hardrock mining disaster since an underground explosion killed 163 men in Montana in 1917. Only two men survived the Sunshine Mine fire, retrieved by rescuers eight days later.

As Shoshone County this week marks the 25th anniversary of the fire, many miners say they’ll be reflecting on how much their lives have changed - and how much they haven’t.

After the fire, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was created. Miners were required to carry breathing devices and be trained in how to use them. Accident rates plummeted.

But even without the changes, workers who survived that day say they never could kick the habit of life underground.

It was a world where a hard day’s work preceded a hard night’s play. It remains a place where work ethic is driven by peers and pay.

“Even today, this is a mining camp,” Evans said of Shoshone County. “They’ve got this ski hill up here, and it’s becoming kind of touristy, but everybody’s got mining connections.”

This year, Evans will retire after three decades of mining in North Idaho. His retirement plans: Move to Nevada and work in a gold mine.

“You make good money, you see your boss maybe five minutes a day, you’ve got lots of independence,” he said. “Miners get spoiled by all that. It’s hard to give up.”

Tragedy couldn’t change that, several miners said last week.

When the 1972 fire broke out about 12:40 p.m., Bill Mitchell was among 173 workers in the shaft. He was almost a mile underground - 4,400 feet below the surface - when someone smelled smoke and shouted.

He and others rang a bell for an elevator basket, a “skip,” but when it finally came, Mitchell couldn’t fit aboard.

It was a lucky break. The 30 men rode up 700 feet and perished in the thickening smoke.

Twenty minutes later, Mitchell caught another skip to another level and walked three-quarters of a mile to the main shaft.

“You never forget it,” Mitchell said last week. “I can’t remember the names, but I can see the faces.”

Stories like his still are common.

At the time of the fire, Dennis Clapp hopped a skip from 4,600 feet and rode safely, uneventfully, to the surface. He called his wife, and returned to help control a gathering crowd.

“That’s when they started finding bodies,” Clapp said.

Three days later, Clapp was back underground as part of a retrieval team. His job: Bagging bodies.

Clapp, then 23, struggled to ignore the smell - a mixture of death, smoke and the garlic-scented substance officials had poured down the shaft to warn workers there was a fire. After awhile, he could only look at the victims’ feet.

“It was a bad deal,” he said. “I’d never seen a dead person before. The first guy I came to … I remember that.”

He lost a cousin in the fire, and had flashbacks a year later, when he came across a smoke-scarred wall underground.

But he remained a miner for 28 years, retiring only after being diagnosed with a blood disease. His brother still works in the mines.

Osburn’s Don Capparelli wasn’t underground the day of the fire. But he should have been.

“I was supposed to be on day shift, but I traded with a friend in Coeur d’Alene who was having car trouble,” Capparelli said last week. “Someone was looking out for me that day.”

Capparelli’s friend died in the blaze.

Capparelli’s jobs were “driving drift” and “sinking shaft” - digging and building underground tunnels. He was paid by the foot.

“We still do it about the same,” he said. “We still drill and blast the little silver veins out. You still get beat up and scarred. There’s still risk.”

Capparelli has been through vicious 14-month strikes and wage freezes. He lost a toe in a recent accident and has seen friends die.

His father was a miner, and so is his 25-year-old son. Now 48, Capparelli’s been underground since age 18. Since the fire, he’s been part of a mine-rescue team.

“I quit actually mining a couple of years ago,” he said. “I figured I’d used up my nine lives.”

But he remains a supervisor at the Sunshine and hopes to work in a mining equipment store after retirement. Miners, Capparelli said, “adapt to a lifestyle.”

“I own a home, have a couple of kids,” he said. “You buy four-wheel-drive pickups, and bass boats and Snow Cats (snowmobiles) and go to Disneyland.”

During his tenure, Capparelli has had years where his income topped $70,000.

“I have no high school education, but I could clear $1,000 a week,” he said.

In the old days, colleagues would live payday to payday, blowing thousands on cars and booze. But as the industry struggled, partying slowed.

“It’s not quite as rough and tough and wild anymore - people aren’t fighting in the streets,” he said. “But if you’re an experienced miner you can still walk into this valley right now and find work.”

These days, Evans works alongside the son of one of the fire victims. He looks forward to the annual memorial service for victims, which takes place Friday.

“I knew practically everybody who died,” said Evans, 51. “It’s important to the older hands to remember.”

Evans said he uses this period to remember how lucky he’s been. The rest of the year, he shuts it out.

“Most of the guys, to tell the truth, try not to think about it,” Evans said. “It’s just something you knew could happen. It doesn’t get discussed much anymore.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Photos (1 color) Graphic: The Sunshine Mine disaster

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CHARTING THE SUNSHINE MINE DISASTER The following stories are excerpts from news accounts of the Sunshine Mine disaster, a fire that ultimately claimed the lives of 91 miners in May 1972. Because of the tragedy, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was formed, and all miners now are required to carry breathing devices and know how to use them.

SPOKANE CHRONICLE, MAY 3, 1972 Kellogg, Idaho The relatives and loved ones, huddled in blankets, drank coffee and talked in hushed voices. But no one wept. Deep underground, more than 100 rescuers from a half a dozen North Idaho mines probed the smoke-filled depths of the Sunshine Mine, the country’s largest silver producer, hoping to hear voices, any trace of 58 miners missing for more than 12 hours. Red Cross volunteers, Idaho State Police and state and federal mine officials stood near the roped-off mine entrance throughout the night, feeding on conjecture about rescue attempts.

SPOKANE CHRONICLE, MAY 3, 1972 By Bill Morlin Chronicle staff representative Kellogg, Idaho “If they had been more organized, there wouldn’t be 58 men down there.” Those frank words came from Byron L. Schulz, 21, Kellogg, a “cager” who said he helped get 56 Sunshine miners to safety in yesterday’s underground nightmare at the world’s largest silver mine. Schulz offered the words from his bed in the West Shoshone General Hospital. After helping the men to safety, he barely made it out of the smoky inferno himself and was taken to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation. So was Robert McCoy, 56, another Kellogg miner, who made it out. Schulz tells the story: “I was pulling the cage at the 5,600-foot level when the buzzer went - oh, I’d say about 11:30 or so. I went to the 3,700-foot level and it was filled with smoke, but I couldn’t see any fire. I loaded up some men and took them up to the 3,100 so they could walk out. “Then I went back down to 4,600 and got two more loads there and then at 5,000 got two more loads. “I think we had 56 guys all told and we got up 31 but I guess the rest didn’t make it. “When I came back up the last time, I couldn’t go back. Before I headed up, I went into the hoist room. When I came out of there, all these guys were laying around gasping for air. I felt some pulses and some guys were dead at that time.” Schulz lighted a cigarette in his hospital bed and said that, while he was in the hoist room, another miner called topside to ask where fresh air could be found in the mile-deep mine. A moment later, the miner, too slumped to the ground, overcome by smoke, Schulz said. “I was the only one left, so I headed out to the Jewell shaft where fresh air existed,” he said.

SPOKESMAN-REVIEW, MAY 10, 1972 By Stefanie Pettit Spokesman-Review Staff Writer Kellogg, Idaho Two miners, trapped at the bottom of Sunshine Mine for more than a week, walked out of the mine at 8:20 p.m. Tuesday amid cheers, applause and tears. Located at the 4,800-foot level in the mine by a four-man rescue team, Tom Wilkinson, 29, Kellogg, and Ron Flory, 28, Smelterville, emerged from the eight-day ordeal apparently unharmed. Waiting for them at the entrance to the Jewell shaft were their wives - Frances Wilkinson, 27, and Myrna Flory, 18 - and other family members. They walked out eagerly and smiling - walking right past their wives, whom they apparently didn’t see. Their wives rushed up and were greeted with hugs. After walking out of the mine with little assistance, the men were taken in separate ambulances to West Shoshone Hospital in Kellogg. They rode in the front seat of the ambulances with their wives. The only noticeable thing about their appearances were heavy growths of beards. Mine officials said the two men told them one of the things which helped them was that they brought lunches when they came to work that fateful Tuesday, (May 2). The men told rescuers seven men died farther down the tunnel, closer to No. 10 shaft. The two men reportedly said they also ate the lunches of these miners.

SPOKESMAN-REVIEW, MAY 12, 1972 Kellogg, Idaho The ordeal of waiting is over at the Sunshine Mine. Of the 93 men trapped in the mine for more than a week, only two emerged alive. It began just before noon on Tuesday, May 2, when a fire deep in the mine forced smoke and poisonous gases through a large section of the mine, including the No. 10 shaft - the one that leads to the lowest levels of the nation’s largest and richest silver mine. And the ordeal ended Thursday - 10 days later - when the last 40 bodies were found, confirming the death toll of 91. The cause of the fire - which is still smoldering between the 3,400- and 3,700-foot levels of the mine - is still unknown.

This sidebar appeared with the story: CHARTING THE SUNSHINE MINE DISASTER The following stories are excerpts from news accounts of the Sunshine Mine disaster, a fire that ultimately claimed the lives of 91 miners in May 1972. Because of the tragedy, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was formed, and all miners now are required to carry breathing devices and know how to use them.

SPOKANE CHRONICLE, MAY 3, 1972 Kellogg, Idaho The relatives and loved ones, huddled in blankets, drank coffee and talked in hushed voices. But no one wept. Deep underground, more than 100 rescuers from a half a dozen North Idaho mines probed the smoke-filled depths of the Sunshine Mine, the country’s largest silver producer, hoping to hear voices, any trace of 58 miners missing for more than 12 hours. Red Cross volunteers, Idaho State Police and state and federal mine officials stood near the roped-off mine entrance throughout the night, feeding on conjecture about rescue attempts.

SPOKANE CHRONICLE, MAY 3, 1972 By Bill Morlin Chronicle staff representative Kellogg, Idaho “If they had been more organized, there wouldn’t be 58 men down there.” Those frank words came from Byron L. Schulz, 21, Kellogg, a “cager” who said he helped get 56 Sunshine miners to safety in yesterday’s underground nightmare at the world’s largest silver mine. Schulz offered the words from his bed in the West Shoshone General Hospital. After helping the men to safety, he barely made it out of the smoky inferno himself and was taken to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation. So was Robert McCoy, 56, another Kellogg miner, who made it out. Schulz tells the story: “I was pulling the cage at the 5,600-foot level when the buzzer went - oh, I’d say about 11:30 or so. I went to the 3,700-foot level and it was filled with smoke, but I couldn’t see any fire. I loaded up some men and took them up to the 3,100 so they could walk out. “Then I went back down to 4,600 and got two more loads there and then at 5,000 got two more loads. “I think we had 56 guys all told and we got up 31 but I guess the rest didn’t make it. “When I came back up the last time, I couldn’t go back. Before I headed up, I went into the hoist room. When I came out of there, all these guys were laying around gasping for air. I felt some pulses and some guys were dead at that time.” Schulz lighted a cigarette in his hospital bed and said that, while he was in the hoist room, another miner called topside to ask where fresh air could be found in the mile-deep mine. A moment later, the miner, too slumped to the ground, overcome by smoke, Schulz said. “I was the only one left, so I headed out to the Jewell shaft where fresh air existed,” he said.

SPOKESMAN-REVIEW, MAY 10, 1972 By Stefanie Pettit Spokesman-Review Staff Writer Kellogg, Idaho Two miners, trapped at the bottom of Sunshine Mine for more than a week, walked out of the mine at 8:20 p.m. Tuesday amid cheers, applause and tears. Located at the 4,800-foot level in the mine by a four-man rescue team, Tom Wilkinson, 29, Kellogg, and Ron Flory, 28, Smelterville, emerged from the eight-day ordeal apparently unharmed. Waiting for them at the entrance to the Jewell shaft were their wives - Frances Wilkinson, 27, and Myrna Flory, 18 - and other family members. They walked out eagerly and smiling - walking right past their wives, whom they apparently didn’t see. Their wives rushed up and were greeted with hugs. After walking out of the mine with little assistance, the men were taken in separate ambulances to West Shoshone Hospital in Kellogg. They rode in the front seat of the ambulances with their wives. The only noticeable thing about their appearances were heavy growths of beards. Mine officials said the two men told them one of the things which helped them was that they brought lunches when they came to work that fateful Tuesday, (May 2). The men told rescuers seven men died farther down the tunnel, closer to No. 10 shaft. The two men reportedly said they also ate the lunches of these miners.

SPOKESMAN-REVIEW, MAY 12, 1972 Kellogg, Idaho The ordeal of waiting is over at the Sunshine Mine. Of the 93 men trapped in the mine for more than a week, only two emerged alive. It began just before noon on Tuesday, May 2, when a fire deep in the mine forced smoke and poisonous gases through a large section of the mine, including the No. 10 shaft - the one that leads to the lowest levels of the nation’s largest and richest silver mine. And the ordeal ended Thursday - 10 days later - when the last 40 bodies were found, confirming the death toll of 91. The cause of the fire - which is still smoldering between the 3,400- and 3,700-foot levels of the mine - is still unknown.


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