The deaths of 12 miners in January at West Virginia’s Sago coal mine is just one example of how this occupation is commonly equated with destruction and death. And it’s hardly the worst.
On April 26, 1942, more than 1,500 Chinese were killed in a coal-dust explosion in Honkeiko, Manchuria.
But the notion of what constitutes a disaster, as always, is relative. The grief borne by the family and friends of the 91 miners who were killed in Kellogg’s May 2, 1972, Sunshine Mine disaster go far beyond the sparse details of headline-speak.
In his book “The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America’s Richest Silver Mine,” which is the November reading selection for The Spokesman-Review Book Club, Olalla, Wash., author Gregg Olsen reveals just about everything anyone would want to know about the disaster.
Except maybe the root cause.
What happened overall is clear enough. Smoke began pouring throughout the tunnels and shafts of the Sunshine, which extended a mile or more down at its deepest.
At first the problem seemed minor. After all, this wasn’t some West Virginia coal mine. This was hard rock, shored up by timber that was kept soaked as a mean of cutting the heat that, Olsen wrote, “felt like being in Panama in the middle of August.” What was there to burn?
Well, something, apparently. Because the problem eventually grew serious, and carbon monoxide and other hot, poisonous gases began to spread. A cluster of mistakes, ranging from bad management to lax safety standards, exacerbated things.
It took more than a week for the death count to be tallied: 93 miners in all had been trapped. Two walked away.
And those two survivors, Ron Flory and Tom Wilkinson, weren’t rescued until May 10.
Olsen, the author of several nonfiction books, including “Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest” and “If Loving You Is Wrong” (which tells the story of teacher-turned-abuser Mary Kay Letourneau), doesn’t write an academic account of mining and its history.
Through four years of research, Olsen he spoke to more than 200 people and pored over public records, newspaper accounts, family correspondence and anyplace else he could find information. He learned enough about mining to put the reader right in the hellish atmosphere that allowed the men who worked the Sunshine the chance to make a good salary they may not have found anywhere else. But such men knew the dangers they faced.
“In the battle being waged by men with jackleg drills against the fractured and folded metamorphic world of the underground, men frequently lost.” Olsen wrote. “Every man knew there was no guarantee he’d ever see daylight again.”
And the dangers don’t involve just the chance of falling down a deep shaft, getting chewed by a rock blast or crushed by a cave-in.
Olsen describes miners chugging pickle juice to avoid the cramping caused by heat, the indigestion that had one miner eating “Rolaids like Beer Nuts” and the “omnipresent dust” left after blasting that ensured “More than one old miner ended his days with an oxygen canister, a metal mongrel trailing on a leash with every step.”
He also tells the story of Bob Launhardt, the mild-mannered safety engineer who fought a daily battle with miners who looked at him as just another management “Goody-Two-Shoes.”
In the end, some good came from the Sunshine Mine disaster, a monument to which can be seen Near Kellogg, just off exit 54 of Interstate 90. The Sunshine was shut down, formerly lax mining safety standards were enforced and the management-friendly U.S Bureau of Mines ended up being replaced by agencies that wielded more stringent accountability.
That was all of little solace to the men who died that day in 1972.
And isn’t interesting that while the reforms did make headlines, they were a lot smaller than those that announced the disaster itself?