BIG CREEK, Idaho – Forty years ago, Tammy Wasson was a 4-year-old who loved her daddy.
She got up with him in the morning before he left for the early shift at the Sunshine Mine, sitting on the kitchen counter in her pajamas while he packed his lunch.
Her dad tucked her back into bed before he left for work. Wasson never saw him again.
Lyle Findley was one of 91 miners who perished from carbon monoxide poisoning in the Sunshine Mine fire on May 2, 1972.
The deaths spread tragedy throughout the Silver Valley. Wasson’s mother became a widow at 22. Her grandmother never stopped grieving the loss of her oldest son. She died a few years later, a broken woman, Wasson said.
On Wednesday, Wasson gathered with more than 100 community residents to mark the 40th anniversary of the second-deadliest mining accident in U.S. history.
The event was a somber reminder of the risks inherent in working deep underground. Ninety-one hardhats were lined up on folding chairs. As the names of the dead miners were read aloud, the headlamps were switched off.
The Sunshine fire led to reforms that helped make mining a safer occupation. Safety training improved; the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was established; and underground workers now carry self-rescuers, devices that allow them to breathe in bad-air situations.
But hard-rock mining remains a dangerous job. At the memorial service, organizers recognized more recent mining accidents in the Silver Valley, which have claimed three workers’ lives in the past three years.
Wayne and Roger Findley, Wasson’s uncles, were also at the ceremony. Wayne Findley was stationed with the Army in Germany when his half-sister called to tell him their brother had died. He’s been to several of the Sunshine fire’s annual memorial services. His brother, Roger, tries to come every year.
“I still recognize a lot of the people,” said Roger Findley, who was working at the mine when the fire broke out.
He was 20 years old, and responsible for running the skip, or elevator, that the underground workers used to evacuate. Many workers weren’t unduly alarmed by the first reports of smoke.
“I thought it was like a school fire drill,” Roger Findley said of the evacuation. “Then the smoke got thicker and thicker.”
When Stanley Taylor, a night shift employee, arrived at the mine at 1 p.m., black smoke was pouring out of the vents. He was given a 40-pound breathing apparatus and assigned to a rescue crew. The horror of retrieving the bodies of dead co-workers still remains with him.
“We brought up the first handful that afternoon,” he said. “There were kids you knew all your life – boys you went to school with.”
Patricia LaVoie learned from her father that the Sunshine Mine was burning. Her husband – 29-year-old Kenneth LaVoie – worked there.
She and other anxious relatives camped out at the mine’s entrance in the days following the fire, waiting for news of their loved ones. Kenneth LaVoie’s body was retrieved more than a week after the fire broke out.
During that time, nuns from Kellogg took care of the couple’s 4-year-daughter, Cassie. “When’s daddy coming home?” she kept asking.
The fire’s cause was never determined. It smoldered for months, fed by timber supports and the polyurethane foam used to seal off mined-out areas.
Cassie LaVoie lives in Portland now. Every year she drives to the Silver Valley for the memorial service, stopping in Spokane to pick up her mom. It’s their way of paying tribute to the young miner who loved the mountains; who wanted to build a log cabin on the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River; who died before his 30th birthday.
Patricia LaVoie had her husband buried in Nine Mile Cemetery near Wallace, which is located in a steep mountain canyon.
She and her daughter planned to visit his grave after the memorial service and spend the day driving around the Silver Valley, stopping at landmarks that were important to their family. Heading up Big Creek to see the Sunshine Mine was on their agenda.
Patricia LaVoie said she’s made peace with the place where her husband was killed.
“They’re in your heart, you never forget them,” she said. “In body he’s gone, but not in spirit.”
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