This Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of the Sunshine Mine Disaster in Kellogg, Idaho. On May 2, 1972, 91 miners lost their lives in one of the worst occupational disasters in our nation’s history.
There was nation wide news coverage at the time, but compared to today’s standards and means, we would now consider what was offered just minimal coverage.
On that spring day, so very long ago, an underground fire silently crept through the mine creating smoke, carbon monoxide and other life endangering gases that infiltrated the tunnels and shafts. One hundred seventy-eight miners arrived at work to begin their jobs in day to day fashion. Before the day was done, 91 would lose their life and only 85 would walk back into the diminished light of the spring day now greatly impacted by grief. Before the disaster was over several excruciating days would pass braced in the apprehended hope to which the families clung - that there would be others found and raised to safety. Only 2 additional miners would eventually be rescued from amidst the danger and damage. The final victim was brought top side on May 13th; 11 days after the fire began. This hard-rock mining disaster eventually brought much needed change to an extremely dangerous industry, but I imagine that fact is only a slight comfort to the families that were forever changed on this distressing day.
You can read the incredible story in two books that were finally written and published: The Price of Silver by John Day and The Deep Dark by Gregg Olson. I’m not sure why it took decades for someone to write an accounting of the disaster, but I’m glad the story was eventually written. For the more accurate accounting I recommend The Price of Silver; a bit less dramatic, probably not as enticing, but more factual, just the same.
The Sunshine Mine is still to date the largest silver mine in the nation, running more than a mile deep with over 100 miles of tunnels. Knowing that fact, and recognizing that at the time safety measures were minimal, we gain great understanding and appreciation for the rescue efforts that were nothing short of valiant with the limited resources on hand at the time.
But the tight knit mining community vowed they would never forget - and forget they never have. On May 2nd they will once again honor the lives that died that day in a continually growing ceremony at the monument erected in the miners’ memory. A statue of a working minor was placed at the foot of Big Creek Canyon shortly after the disaster. The 15 foot miner was purposefully located at this spot with his head lamp shining south in the direction of the Sunshine Mine as a physical reminder of the lives lost there on that dreadful day. At this year’s memorial, once again 91 chairs will hold mining hard-hats with head lamps that are never extinguished in the hearts of those that lost a loved one, 40 years ago.
I’m not sure I remember the moment I actually received the news of the Sunshine disaster. The impact on my life was minimal compared to those that lost sons and husbands; brothers and fathers. I lost a cousin – I will call him DD. He had a beautiful wife and two precious baby daughters. He was 23 years old. He also left behind a loving mom, and brothers and sisters who loved him deeply. They had already suffered great loss when their husband and father had been killed in a mining accident about 7 or 8 years previously.
What I do remember of the time, was the deep hurt I witnessed in the immediate and extended family. On a personal level, I also remember the uncommon kindness of some that showed their concern for me. I was in high school, soon to graduate. I will never forget my Government teacher kindly pulling me aside to ask me about the accident. He had incorrectly heard it was my brother who was lost. He had taught my brother the year previous, and he had also coached him in sports. I could see the genuine look of concern and sorrow on his face. “No”, I told him, “it wasn’t C. It was our cousin.” And I saw relief cross his face, but it was personal relief tempered with all-reaching compassion for the others. Another classmate had lost a brother. Every life is as important as another, but of course it hits harder when one knows them personally.
I remember another classmate bringing me a beautiful card of encouragement, though we didn’t know one another well. It is these types of kindnesses that one remembers for a life time. I don’t believe we should ever underestimate the simple gestures that we often times feel are so inadequate at a time of someone’s great loss. One never knows how it will encourage, or how it will impact one later at the memory.
Of course my cousins, my aunt and grandparents were the ones of most concern to my family at the time. As I said previously, my cousins had already lost their dad in another tragic mining accident. I have never forgotten the day we arrived at their home the day of my uncle’s funeral and DD opened the door and warmly greeted us with a smile and light joking that only minimally masked his grief. I was a small child, but I knew he was happy to see us. It impacted me for a life time. I learned there can be joy in sorrow from my older and wiser cousin. One would never have guessed just 8 years later he would also lose his life.
Certainly I remember the tears the day my uncle died: my dad’s tears, the tears of my cousins, my sisters, the tears of my brother. Each of their reactions is indelibly ingrained in my memory. And I will never forget the tears that fell at the death of my cousin. One of my uncles was especially impacted due to the fact that he was also in the mine that day. Thankfully, he was one of the ones that made it out; but he lost a nephew who he looked at as a best friend, as well as many other friends and co-workers. I have memories forever ingrained in my memory of my family’s loss. I also remember my grandma’s words of comfort when she learned DD had probably been alive for a time at the 5600 foot level of that mine. “DD would have called on Jesus”, she reassuringly told us, “and I know He was with him through that time.”
The reassuring comments, the smiles that power through the darkness, the tears that bubble up from the heart to fall down a face in an expression of love and release are the things that are never forgotten at such monumental times of grief.
All these years later, there are certain memories that are as clear as the day it occurred. Some of my memories are of past Sunshine Memorials where a friend’s face remains in my minds eye as if I were once again looking into his face where his reoccurring pain is one more time revealed.
Naturally the days after were dark and seemingly without life, as this small community that had lost 91 men recovered and rebuilt their lives. The displacement that occurred might be difficult for an outsider to comprehend, but to those most affected by the tragedy, it was the natural process of maturing through grief. Can you imagine how 91 lost lives affected a community with a population of little over 4000? (Kellogg and surrounding towns) Today, Kellogg’s population is still down by 33% of the 1972 count.
On Wednesday, there will once again be tears; there will also be smiles that power through because of the calming salve of time; and there will be words of encouragement and words of pride for each of the lives lost. There will be connections once again established because of the common bond that most all that attend have always shared.
They will speak of a history, they will speak of a heritage; and there will be a new generation that learns and honors with acquired understanding. They were noble men of a noble profession which is not only a part of our state history, but is a very integral part of the lives of families that were forever impacted on that day. We live in death. And hopefully we grow; we learn; we love and we share. It is as it should be, and I am proud of a community that has vowed to never forget.
Click here for information of this year's memorial.