Mike Marek was rolling up his water hose, about to make the last wrap, when it happened. “Loud thuds like, ‘Vvoof, vvoof.’ And instantly it’s just dust,” he said.
The dust choked the air, turning into a grayish fog under his miner’s headlamp. After what seemed like minutes, the air cleared enough for Marek to make his way down the tunnel to where his mining partner and younger brother Larry Marek had been working. And then his light landed on it.
“A huge pile of boulders and sand,” Mike Marek said. “That’s when I was praying, ‘Oh my god, I hope he ain’t under that.’ ” Marek called out, “ ‘Larry! Larry!’ I was trying to move rocks with my hands. Then I’d holler some more.”
It was April 15, 2011. The Marek brothers were more than a mile underground at the Lucky Friday Mine, a silver, lead and zinc mine near Mullan, Idaho. Over the next nine days, rescuers would make various attempts to get through the rock, trying to reach a space behind the cave-in where they hoped Larry was still alive, but trapped.
The Mareks, a large local mining family, camped out on cots and inflatable mattresses in a hoist room at the mine, clinging to each update. If anyone could survive down there, it was Larry, they told each other.
But when rescue crews finally reached Larry the day before Easter, they discovered he had been dead the whole time, killed by blunt force trauma.
Mike Marek was standing outside the mine when he received the news about Larry. He had a view of the lower parking lot. “Just to see his car sitting there with that snow on it and just knowing that he drove up there and never did get to get in his car and go home,” Mike said. “Bad choices – bad choices were made, and it cost him his life.”
More than a year after 53-year-old Larry Marek died, the family says the company that owns the Lucky Friday Mine, Hecla Mining, has not taken responsibility for its role in the cave-in.
But Phil Baker, president and CEO of Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla, said “nothing indicated that it would have happened. If we had (warning) we wouldn’t have let anyone go into the stope,” or mining area where the rockfall occurred. “We would have done things differently,” Baker said.
The Mareks contend the structural problems with the tunnel-like stope Larry was working in were clear to experienced miners and that Hecla overlooked the risks to retrieve additional ore. The Lucky Friday Mine is one of the deepest mines in the country. Its shaft towers above the trees in North Idaho’s Silver Valley, one of the top silver producing regions in the world. The Friday, as it’s called, hadn’t had a fatal accident for 25 years before Marek was killed, according to Hecla.
And the Marek brothers didn’t have any cause for complaints, Mike said, until the day he learned about a plan to pull what’s known as a “waste pillar.”
Mike remembers telling Larry, “God, that’s stupid.”
According to the federal report on Larry Marek’s death, this method was “a departure from typical mining methods.” The waste pillar in Larry’s stope acted like a load-bearing wall in a house. And according to the federal report, his stope was especially wide – roughly 25 feet. Larry’s work area was also at the base of intersecting silver veins, a common point of instability in mining.
“You’re going too far and it’s too wide. To me that was a scary-looking place,” Mike Marek said. He regrets never filing a formal complaint. The day before the accident he walked over to where Larry had been working. “I go, ‘I don’t like this place.’ And he didn’t say nothing for a long time. Then he goes, ‘Me neither.’ ”
Federal inspectors took eight months to complete their investigation. At the end, they concluded that Hecla had engaged in poor mining practices.
But two days into the search for Larry, his younger brother Danny said he already knew that.
Danny Marek, who works at the Galena Mine in Silverton, Idaho, said he went to the main office of the Lucky Friday Mine to look at the mine map.
“And I’ll tell you right now it took me probably 10 seconds to look at the stope and see the pillar they took out and knew they should have never took that out,” he said. Sitting recently at the same table where he and Larry talked late into the night over beers, Danny said he can’t believe someone at Hecla didn’t see the danger.
“Yeah, I’m pissed at them,” he said. “They gotta stick up for what they did. And they did it for a little bit of ore in that pillar, and it cost my brother his life.”
But Baker, the president of Hecla, says the cave-in happened without warning. He disputes the claim that the pillar was removed for its silver ore and says the design of Larry’s stope had been used several times successfully in the past at the Lucky Friday.
“We cannot begin to feel what they (the Mareks) feel,” said Baker, adding that the accident will be “the catalyst for making the mine safer.”
Marek’s death in April was the first of several incidents in 2011. On Nov. 17, Brandon Lloyd Gray, 26, was fatally injured during work to deepen the mine. A month later, a rock burst put seven miners in the hospital. Federal inspectors ordered that Hecla close the mine to complete a long list of repairs, including a top-to-bottom scrubbing of the mine’s main shaft.
Baker said this month they’ll start to rehire the 400 workers laid off during the closure. “When they come back, the first thing they’ll be doing is safety training,” Baker said.
But to Larry Marek’s daughter, it’s too little, too late.
“That was my dad and this company didn’t keep him safe. And they did things that caused an accident that killed him,” said Hayley Marek, of Vancouver, Wash.
She doesn’t think the $360,000 in fines the federal government levied on Hecla for four citations associated with Marek’s death will “hold the company accountable.”
Mike Marek and his sons Anton and Michael Jr. are now working for U.S. Silver Corp. at the Galena Mine. They don’t intend to go back when Hecla starts rehiring.
“I don’t question mining. I think if you do it right, it’s not that bad of a career,” said Michael Marek Jr., Larry’s nephew. “It’s when choices are made like that it can turn bad quick.”