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