Most of the time, miners avoid much public notice. Or public notice avoids them.
Maybe it’s because they burrow deep under the ground, out of sight, to extract the minerals we need to make our lives comfortable.
Then something horrible happens to remind us what miners – and their families, friends and neighbors – never forget. It is dangerous work. Routinely dangerous. Every shift, every day.
It’s the kind of work Larry “Pete” Marek and his brother were doing Friday, with more than a mile of mountain separating them from the nearest daylight. Then, in a stope of the Lucky Friday Mine a little east of Mullan, Idaho, a section of the rock and dirt over their heads suddenly gave way, dropping tons of debris between the brothers and preventing Pete Marek’s escape.
As generations of Silver Valley residents have done for more than a century, community members reached out to the anxious family and to one another. The rescue effort that ensued has tempered urgency with safety. Resources and responses have come from around the nation, and the story has gripped the attention of the broader Inland Northwest.
A hole is bored to get air to the probably overheated area where Marek is thought to be. A remote camera is deployed to look for him.
There is plenty of public notice now. And there is plenty of worry, prayer and compassion.
Idaho is home to thousands of mines, from one end of the state to the other, but none so fabled as the silver producers of the Panhandle. Originally, at the dawn of the 20th century, the now-venerable Lucky Friday was not a promising venture, not at the surface at least.
It wasn’t until some 1,200 feet down that it displayed clear commercial value. By 1960, tunnels pursued the lucrative deposits more than 3,500 feet below the surface. Last week, the Marek brothers were working more than 6,000 feet down, even as Hecla Mining, the owner, plans further excavation as deep as 9,000 feet.
Such efforts pay off because the price of silver, now at extraordinarily high levels, provides mine owners with profits and miners with good, albeit dangerous, livings. Until an accident happens.
Then, the public that uses the copper from Chile or the coal from West Virginia or the silver from Idaho watches, wrings its hands and hopes for a happy ending.
The miner Pete Marek may be out of sight, but he’s never been more visible.