KELLOGG, Idaho – The 91 men who perished when they were trapped by fire in the Sunshine Mine 36 years ago were remembered by this mining community with songs, speeches and prayers.
On May 2, 1972, the mine up Big Creek Canyon was the site of one of the nation’s worst mining disasters. Smoke began pouring out of the mine, trapping 93 miners, and carbon monoxide killed 91 men. Two men found an air pocket, where they remained a week before being rescued.
The disaster is memorialized by a sculpture near the mine along Interstate 90, about eight miles southeast of Kellogg, where Friday’s event took place.
“This is an important anniversary for many of us in the Silver Valley to pull together and remember the many courageous men that were lost that day,” Sunshine Memorial committee chairman Bill Delbridge said.
Guest speaker and Mullan School District Superintendent Robin Stanley said the fire has affected his life and the people of the Silver Valley.
“I am proud to say that I too was once a miner, and what an honor this is now for me to pay tribute to the men and women who work day and night underground, in the most honorable line of work there is,” Stanley said.
After Stanley’s message, 91 family members, friends, and students from Kellogg, Wallace and Mullan stepped forward to individually read the names of the 91 victims, subsequently turning off the head lamp on their hard hat before walking off stage.
A 92nd hard hat placed at center stage symbolized the miners and mine rescue workers who have died doing their jobs since the tragedy.
Stanley compared the Sunshine disaster to milestone incidents throughout history such as the JFK assassination in November 1963 and the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state in 1980. Everyone in the valley remembers where they were and what they were doing when the fire broke out, he said.
Stanley said he had not lost loved ones in the fire, but knew people who did.
“Everybody you talked to at the time knew someone who had not made it out,” Stanley said. “An uncle, a brother, a son, a friend; 91 men, not just names on a plaque, all gathered at God’s side that day.”
The Sunshine Mine produced more than 350 million ounces of silver, starting in 1884 with the discovery of the Yankee Lode. Low silver prices led to its closure in 2001. Sterling Mining Co. acquired the rights to the dormant mine in 2003 and resumed production last December.
Stanley asked the audience to imagine a world without precious metals.
“A house with no electricity, no utensils, no communication whatsoever, not even a flashlight. The house begins to fall apart, there are no freeways or overpasses to drive on, but vehicles do not exist either,” Stanley said.
“It’s called the Stone Age, and that’s what life would be like without the miners who have courageously gone underground to strip Mother Nature of her precious bounty for hundreds of years,” he said. “But she will not give it up without a struggle, and in certain instances Mother Nature wins as happened on that infamous day.”
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