The Sunshine Mine disaster still reverberates through northern Idaho’s Silver Valley half a century after that fateful day in 1972 when 91 miners died in a fire and smoke underground.
“It’s hard to believe because it feels like yesterday,” said Peggy White, 70. She lost her father, uncle and brother-in-law in the tragedy.
The fire led to sweeping mine safety reforms. He left 217 children fatherless and devastated the community.
“It’s something you never go through,” White said.
A crowd waits outside the Sunshine Mine as rescue efforts continue in May 1972. (Cowles Publishing)
A typical day turned tragic
In the early morning of May 2, 1972, as the night shift returned home, 173 miners arrived for their shift in the “deepest and richest silver mine in the country”, according to an article by Spokesman-Review at the time.
Miners started noticing smoke just before noon, which was not uncommon in the mine. But as the smoke thickened, it became clear that something was wrong.
The miners started trying to make their way through the maze of mine shafts.
What they didn’t know was that the fire was near a part of the mine where clean air was entering, causing carbon monoxide to circulate through the main airways.
Most miners had not been trained to use the rebreathers stored near the first aid kits near their work areas.
These would provide them with a limited amount of breathable air, according to news reports from the time. Some tried to wet their shirts and breathe through them, hoping to block out the smoke, unaware that carbon monoxide was the real threat.
Dozens of miners were able to escape, thanks to the courage and skill of the lift operators who went deeper into the mine to pick up their fellow miners.
Byron L. Schulz was a 21-year-old cager who helped bring the 56 escaped miners to safety. From the hospital bed where he was being treated for smoke inhalation the day after the fire, Schulz told Spokane Daily Chronicle reporter Bill Morlin about his harrowing escape.
“I was pulling the cage at the 5,600ft level when the buzzer sounded – oh, I would say around 11:30 or so – I went to the 3,700ft level. It was filled with smoke, but I didn’t see any fire,” Schulz said. “I loaded men and took them up to 3,100 so they could get out.”
Schulz went back down into the mine, deeper this time, to get more men.
“When I came last time, I couldn’t go back. Before going up, I went to the lifting room,” Schulz said. “When I came out, all these guys were lying there out of breath. I felt pulses and some guys were dead by then.
After exiting the danger zone, Schulz had to walk a mile through another tunnel to the Jewel Shaft, where he was hoisted to safety.
“I started walking and knew I was about to leave when the rescue team picked me up and gave me oxygen,” Schulz said. “If they hadn’t picked me up, I never would have made it.”
Schulz got emotional talking about the eventful escape.
“If they had been more organized, there wouldn’t be 58 men there. Everyone was just in an uproar,” he said. “There was no organization – no one knew what to do or how to do it.”
By the end of that first night, 24 people were known to be dead and 58 were still missing, according to a May 3, 1972, Spokesman-Review article.
Initial rescue teams said the mine was “extremely hot, extremely smoky and almost impossible to see”.
Relatives of the trapped miners held a vigil near the mine’s main shaft. Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus arrived at the scene the next day.
“The only thing on our mind right now is saving all survivors,” Andrus said at the time. “I’m convinced right now that everything is done that can be done.”
Fresh air was forced through the mine in hopes that the missing miners were still alive.
A day after the fire started, the incident was already being called “the worst mining disaster in Idaho’s history,” according to an article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle.
Marvin Chase, vice president and general manager of Sunshine Mining Company, said at the time that hope remained that the missing men were alive.
Two days after the fire, President Richard Nixon asked the Federal Bureau of Mines to investigate. On May 5, it emerged that many miners had not been trained to use the individual air resuscitators that could have protected them from smoke and toxic gases.
On May 7, rescuers discovered more bodies, bringing the death toll to 35.
The miners who had escaped began to share their safety concerns.
“There better be improvements or there won’t be any miners in this mine,” William Mitchell, 26, told The Spokesman-Review.
“They better have better safety equipment.”
The first funerals of the miners whose bodies had been recovered began to take place as rescue efforts continued.
Lee Donald Beehner, 38, escaped the mine but returned to try to save his friends. Reports say Beehner removed his air mask and shoved it in the face of a fellow miner. The two died side by side.
“He died trying to save a fellow miner,” Pastor Ralph Wendt said at Beehner’s funeral.
A series of mechanical malfunctions complicated rescue efforts, including a major electrical cable break that had to be repaired for work to continue.
After a week of rescue efforts, hope has faded. Five more miners were discovered, bringing the death toll to 40.
And then two miners, Tom Wilkinson, 29, and Ron Flory, 28, were found alive at the bottom of the mine.
The couple emerged from the mine, “apparently unscathed”, according to an article by Spokesman-Review. They were “smiling victoriously” as they pushed the stretchers aside and “triumphantly walked away from the place of their ordeal”, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported.
The two miners had holed up in a storage room, surviving on their own packed lunches and the lunches of nearby dead men. When one of them went down, they pumped themselves, they said.
“It was God’s will,” Wilkinson said. Wilkinson and Flory’s survival gave hope to the families of the missing men.
But that was quickly shattered when the last of the miners was found dead on May 12. The ages of the dead ranged from 20 to 61 years.
The damage was immeasurable.
The cause of the fire was never determined. The mine remained closed for seven months.
A Bureau of Mines report on the disaster listed nine major factors contributing to its severity, including delayed evacuation, failure of company officials to train their miners in self-rescue and survival techniques , the lack of evacuation drills and a ventilation system that contaminated the main intake airway with smoke and carbon monoxide.
The tragedy prompted sweeping safety reforms in the mining industry. In 1977, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act was passed in Congress, requiring multiple annual inspections of underground mines, enhanced and expanded rights for miners, and required training and mine rescue teams.
A film called “You are my Sunshine” produced by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 2002 commemorated lost miners while also serving as a training video for mine rescue teams. The film now serves as a way to teach tragedy to the next generation, White said. Last week, students at Kellogg Schools watched the film ahead of the anniversary, she said.
Monday will be the first annual “Miners Memorial Day” after the Idaho state legislature passed a bill designating the day earlier this year.
The families of the lost have planned an 11 a.m. anniversary event at the Sunshine Miners Memorial located just off Interstate 90 at Exit 54 in Big Creek.
White and other community members prepared the Sunshine Miners Memorial for the big day. A new sidewalk has been installed, new headstones have been ordered and vegetation trimmed.
At the 50th anniversary ceremony on Monday, students will sit in chairs with miners’ hats and turn off lights while the names of the victims are read, White said.
Gov. Brad Little will speak and families of those lost will have the opportunity to reconnect and visit them, she said.
“That’s why we have it,” White said, “for families.”