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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Remembering the Sunshine

In these blue days of May it feels as if the world's a friend, the universe is kind and nothing can go amiss. History teaches us otherwise. The Hindenburg exploded into our collective visual memories on May 6, 1937. The Lusitania sank off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. Forty years ago today, May 13, 1972, the last bodies from the Sunshine Mine disaster in North Idaho, were recovered and made their way back into the springtime air. The fire in the Big Sunshine affected everyone in the Silver Valley in some way or another. In my family, we saw our father cry for the first and only time. We heard our mother say, "I swear, I'll never pray again."

No one thinks about a fire in a hard rock mine. That happens with coal, not silver. And yet, there's a lot of timber in a mine, and in the Sunshine, polyurethane bulkheads that, when ignited, spewed deadly carbon monoxide fumes. Aided by the ventilation system, it filled the mine--a mile deep with over 100 miles of tunnels -- and took 91 lives. These were fathers, sons and brothers of people I knew. This was the first time the word disaster meant anything to me.

Disaster. From the Latin, astrum, star. Prefix dis- apart from. Unfavorable to one's stars. Indeed. 
 People gathered at the mine, Red Cross workers and medical providers at the ready, miners from other companies to see if they could volunteer for the rescue, friends, curiosity seekers, and of course the families who waited and waited.. No one knew that all but two were already dead below. Reading the account of the mine disaster, Gregg Olsen's finely detailed The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine, I finally learned what happened after the fire was discovered, and of the many heroes who stayed or went back into the mine to help others to safety.


I have a permanent link with this tragedy, not because I lost anyone, but because my father was the mine manager. My father, the mild-mannered, stamp collector, a good guy who prayed on his knees every night. He wasn't there that day, but attending the annual stockholder's meeting being held forty miles over the mountains in Coeur d'Alene. By the time anyone realized how bad it was, by the time they reached him, it was all over underground. But the days of not knowing went on for everyone. The hoists and elevators full of the dead were stranded between the deep dark and the open air for days before anyone knew that hope was a wasted emotion.

And what caused the fire? A spark from an acetylene torch? A smoker's match? Arson? Here's a story:

Late one night, after midnight, about a month after the fire, our doorbell rang. We lived out by the mine, far from town. Everyone knew the mine manager's house, in those still-feudal days it was the biggest one for miles. I heard my parents go down the stairs, and saw from my window the sudden glow as the porch light flipped on. My brother had been awakened, too, and he and I sat at the top of the stairs in the darkness listening to the low conversation. The visitor was one of the Sunshine widows. She'd been drinking and said she had something she needed to tell.

She said her husband and another miner had decided to make a device to start a small fire underground. They'd experimented for weeks in the basement, and were ready to go on May 2 as they had planned. Just a little embarrassing smoke for the stockholder's meeting. She said survivors told her that her husband had escaped, but when he saw that his actions had gone way too far, he went back down to try to help, and didn't come back.

 The next day my father called the district attorney, told him the story, and then he let it go. It was his nature. But that night has haunted me ever since. It's with me now as I write. The investigation into the fire at the Sunshine determined the cause to be spontaneous combustion, an unsatisfying verdict implying that no one was responsible. It just happened. So it goes. The report devotes one line to the arson theory: There has been no substantial evidence provided that leads us to believe the fire was deliberately started.

The woman was vilified: a drunk and possibly a schizophrenic. Unreliable. That happens to a lot of whistle blowers, especially women. If I'd been through that, I'd be a drunk schizophrenic, too. But I can still recall the woman's voice, nervous, but full of conviction. It would have taken a lot of a courage in those days, regardless of blood alcohol level, for a woman to walk up to our big house and ring the bell. And I know that whenever I think back to that time, I will always be the girl sitting in the dark at the top of the stairs. Listening in the night to a chilling story that unraveled a mystery, and was then ignored.




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