It was a quiet week at the Sunshine Mine, as employees dealt with the loss of shaft repairman Tom Huff. Huff, 57, fell down a shaft to his death early Tuesday morning.
“It’s been subdued for the last few days. People are pretty upset,” said Ken Poulson, president of Steelworkers Local 5089.
Wendell Ivie, Huff’s partner, was too distraught to comment. Steve Melton, who also worked in the shaft with Huff, said the news came as a shock.
“I wasn’t there when it happened,” he said. “They called me right after.”
Melton spent a day helping to investigate the accident, an activity that delayed the impact of the news.
“Somehow it didn’t bother me a whole lot (initially). … It bothers me more today,” he said.
Co-workers remember Huff as a lanky, soft-spoken man who sported a cowboy hat in his off-hours. He was a computer buff and an avid National Rifle Association activist.
“He reminded me a lot of my dad,” said Harry Cougher, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the mine. “He was really into individual rights, a gun collector. In some ways, he was born about 100 years too late.”
“He always talked a lot about his kids,” Melton said. “And he could be stubborn. He’d get his mind set on something, and you couldn’t budge him. But I don’t think anybody disliked him.”
Keith Collins, a 27-year Sunshine employee who retired last May, said Huff was a good friend.
“I probably knew him for 20 years. He was a good union member, just an all-right guy.”
Collins, who served as president of the Steelworkers Local for eleven years, also remembers Huff as a conscientious worker.
“He was the kind of guy who was interested in his job, took it pretty seriously. He was always strong on safety rules, yet his death was a human mistake. It’s a real tragedy.”
“There are some mistakes you only make once,” Melton noted soberly. He said that apparently Huff had failed to take time to hook on his safety rope.
“That’s all it took. The guy he was working with heard him say, ‘Oh … .’ He turned around and saw Tom slip down the hole.”
Poulson said Huff’s death has made everyone at the mine more conscious of routine precautions. “It makes people take notice of how they do things, pay more attention to safety,” he said.
Asked if Huff’s loss would change the way he performed his own job, Melton said, “No, not really. If you’re careful, and. …” His voice trailed off. “Things happen.”
Workers aren’t the only people who’ve been reminded of the risks involved in mining.
“I’m worried about my husband,” said Margaret Ivie, whose husband Kenneth is also a shaft repairman. “I don’t want to lose him.”
“I’m worried about every one of them up there,” said Myrna Kinnick, whose husband Jim worked with Huff on the diamond drill. “Every job is dangerous.”
Kinnick, whose first husband was one of the two survivors of the 1972 Sunshine fire that killed 91 miners, is particularly sensitive to the danger.
“It’s not something you ignore. Whenever something happens to anybody in the mine it affects us all, because it could happen to any one of them,” she said. “The whole community feels it when somebody dies.”
, DataTimes MEMO: Bekka Rauve is a free-lance writer who lives in the Silver Valley. Panhandle Pieces appears every Saturday. The column is shared among several North Idaho writers.