Mine engineers say the attempt to rescue 33 Chilean miners is an “unprecedented challenge.”
Yet a precedent does exist, on a smaller scale, right here in the Inland Northwest.
Two Idaho miners, Peter Grant and Emil Sayko, were trapped for 14 days in the Gold Hunter Mine near Mullan, Idaho, in November 1919. They were kept alive through a tiny lifeline – a diamond-drilled hole. This story had a joyously happy ending, which might make you feel just a little more optimistic about the future of those Chilean miners.
Richard Magnuson, of Wallace, Idaho, alerted me to the Mullan story, and a more authoritative source would be hard to find. Magnuson, who once worked in the mines himself, is a historian and author of “Coeur d’Alene Diary: The First Ten Years of Hardrock Mining in North Idaho.” Magnuson heard the story as a young man, from an exceptionally knowledgeable source (as you’ll learn below). The tale, as it unfolds below, comes largely from Magnuson’s research and from our newspaper archives.
The disaster happened at 10:45 a.m. on Nov. 15, 1919. Grant and Sayko were working on what was called the 27th floor of the Gold Hunter Mine when they heard a massive rumble. It was a cave-in, cutting off all exit.
Their fellow miners despaired of finding the men alive. Yet they went frantically to work anyway. The Gold Hunter (now part of the still-operating Lucky Friday Mine) shut down all operations and devoted its energies to clearing the cave-in, and at the same time drilling straight down toward the men with a diamond drill.
Meanwhile, Hunter and Sayko found themselves in the cold and dark. Their only food consisted of the contents of their two dinner pails. A half-barrel of water was on their floor. Grant, fortunately, was a “wise, long-headed miner,” according to his colleagues. He had a habit of carrying twice as many matches as most other miners.
So the wait began. They could hear their rescuers working, and they tried to signal that they were alive. But after four days, their food was gone. After five days, their matches were gone. On the seventh day, they were running out of water. They could do nothing, by this time, except shiver in the dark.
Meanwhile, rescue efforts proceeded frantically. At one point, two rescuers were caught in a second cave-in and almost killed. The rescuers themselves had to be rescued.
Down in their own tomb, Grant and Sayko heard the rumble from the second cave-in. It was, said Sayko, the only time they “felt completely discouraged.”
They thought it spelled the end of the rescue effort. “Black hours” followed, both metaphorically and literally. Then they heard noises above.
“They heard water trickle and then they went almost wild with delight when the diamond drill broke through from above,” said The Spokesman-Review.
“Hello!” Sayko shouted through the drill hole. “Tell my wife I am all right!”
His wife was at home with their 3-week-old baby. Both men’s wives had been grimly preparing themselves for bad news. Instead, they heard the best news possible. When news spread, “Wallace, Mullan and the Coeur d’Alenes went wild with joy,” according to reporters.
The drill hole was only 1 1/4 inches in diameter and was later enlarged to about 2 inches. Mine workers fashioned special tube-like “cans” that could be pulled back and forth through the drill hole. Soon, they were lowering cans full of meat, candy, dates, candles, water and bread to the famished men.
Over the next week, the two men ate 400 specially baked finger-size loaves of bread. Magnuson said a deck of cards – carefully folded – came down the pipe to help the men kill the time.
About 900 small candles relieved both the dark and the chill. Several winding-sheets of silk fabric – light, compact and warm – were sent down as blankets.
Then, on Nov. 29, rescuers broke through to their floor and brought the dazed and delirious men to the surface.
Grant and Sayko were wrapped in blankets and their eyes were bandaged to protect them from the unaccustomed light. They were described as “looking fine,” although “a trifle weak.” They recovered quickly.
Sayko continued to work at the mine for decades – but not underground. Magnuson met Sayko in 1950, when Sayko still worked for the mines in the “dry,” which is what they called the changing room where miners changed into their work clothes. The young Magnuson asked him if he was that Emil Sayko. Sayko wasn’t too eager to relive the incident, but he did talk to Magnuson briefly about it.
And as for Grant? He did something that, to an impartial observer, makes perfect sense.
“He got out and never came back,” Sayko told Magnuson.
The Spokesman-Review said that the story contained “a lesson well worth study for miners, and all interested in mine rescue work.”
The paper called it a lesson “long to be remembered.” It’s certainly worth remembering 91 years later.