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Mining Accident and Disasters
Sunshine Mining Company
Sunshine Mine

Kellogg, Shoshone County, Idaho
May 2, 1972 - 91 Killed




Tragedy at the Sunshine Mine by Frank Starr

See also: • A View from Inside
• The Deep Dark:
Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine

by Gregg Olsen
• Report of Investigation  (7.5 Mb)

From the Google News Archives:
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To combat the excessive high temperatures generated in this hard rock mine fire scenario, liquid oxygen breathing apparatus were specially flown in from England by the U. S. Air Force.
Twenty (20) Aerorlox, 3-hour, self-contained breathing apparatus, manufactured by Seibe Gorman in the UK, were granted on-the-spot approval for use during this mine fire.  Formal approval was later rubber stamped, which itself was a first for equipment of this type.
The apparatus’ breathing mixture proved to be much cooler that that being experienced by apparatus wearers using the McCaa SCBAs, which were used by most mine rescue teams of that era.

Table of Contents

Background
Summary of Disaster
Preliminary Report of Major Mine Fire Disaster
Discovery of Fire and the Activities Thereafter
Recovery Operations
Investigation of Possible Causes of Fire

Background

The Sunshine Mine is located about 8 miles southeast of Kellogg, Shoshone County, Idaho.

Employment totaled 522 persons, 429 of whom worked underground. The mine was operated on three 8-hour shifts, 5 days a week.  Miners gained entrance to the active mine workings by walking along a 200 foot drift (tunnel) to the Jewell Shaft, and were then lowered to the 3100 and 3700 levels by means of a hoist (elevator), then transported by train to the No. 10 shaft and again lowered by means of shaft conveyance to their designated levels.  The No. 10 shaft extends from 3100 to the 6000 feet.  Production was being maintained on the 4000, 4200, 4400, 4600, 4800, 5000, and 5200 levels, with some development work on the 5400, 5600, and 5800 levels.

Summary of Disaster

A fire of as yet undetermined origin was detected by Sunshine employees at approximately 11:35 a.m. on May 2, 1972.  At that time, smoke and gas was coming from the 910 raise on the 3700 level.  This fire precipitated the death of 91 underground employees by smoke inhalation and/or carbon monoxide poisoning.  A subsequent shutdown of production of 7 months followed.  Evacuation efforts at the time of the onset resulted in 81 men being evacuated the first day and 2 men being rescued 7 days later from the 4800 level.

Preliminary Report of Major Mine Fire Disaster

Chronology of the Fire and of the Rescue and Recovery Operations

The following description of the events related to the major disaster at the Sunshine silver mine is based on records maintained by the mine operator, interviews with mine officials and workers, depositions taken by Department of the Interior attorneys from survivors of the catastrophe and others, Federal mine inspection reports, and observations made by Bureau of Mines personnel.

Discovery of Fire and the Activities Thereafter

On May 2, 1972, a total of 173 men making up a normal day shift (7 a.m. to 3 p.m.) crew entered the mine and proceeded to work up to the time they learned of the fire.  In the morning, miners Custer Keough and William Walty were engaged in enlarging the 3400 ventilation drift to decrease the ventilation resistance in the main exhaust airway.  Their work consisted of drilling and blasting along the back and ribs, mucking, and rock bolting.  An underground mechanic, Homer Benson, also reported to the 3400 level with an oxygen-acetylene cutting torch which was needed to remove old rock bolts along the drift, and transported it to the worksite with a small battery-powered locomotive.  The worksite was west from the 09 vein bulkhead about 500 feet.  Benson completed the cutting of the old rock bolts and arrived back at the 3700 level station with his equipment at 10:35 a.m. Keough and Walty ate lunch on the 3400 level at a presently unknown location.

Most of the salaried and day's pay personnel who normally ate their lunch from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. did so at their normal locations.  Harvey Dionne, Jim Bush, Bob Bush, Jim Salyer, and Fred (Gene) Johnson, mine supervisors, were in the Blue Room (supervisors' room) near the 3700 level No. 10 Shaft station.  Arnold Anderson, Norman Ulrich, Gary Beckes, and John Williams were in the electric shop also near the 3700 level No. 10 Shaft station to the south.

Leslie Mossburgh, Bill Bennett, Clyde Napier, Homer Benson, and Hap Fowler were in the drill repair shop located to the north of the No. 10 Shaft station on 3700 level.  Greg Dionne, Tony Sabala, and Donald Beehner were in the pipe shop located at No.8 Shaft.  James Lamphere was in the 3700 level warehouse.  Pete Bennett and Kenneth Tucker were in the 08 machine shop in by the pipe shop.  Don Woods was at the No. 10 Shaft chippy hoistroom.  Morris Story and Jack Harris were also at 3700 level No. 10 Shaft station.

Floyd Strand, chief electrician; Kenneth Ross, geologist; Larry Hawkins, sampler; and John Reardon, pumpman, completed their morning activities at the No. 10 Shaft area.  At 11:30 a.m., the above crew departed the No. 10 Shaft station on the 3700 level enroute to the Jewell Shaft on a man coach.  Their route took them past the Strand substation, 910-raise, No.5 Shaft, and No.4 Shaft.  They arrived at the Jewell station shortly after 11 :40 a.m.  Shortly after lunch, at about 11:35 a.m., Ulrich and Anderson stepped out of the electric shop and smelled smoke.  They immediately shouted to the Blue Room.  Harvey Dionne and Bob Bush, foremen, came out and the four men started in the direction of the smoke which was toward the Strand substation.  The smoke was discovered to be coming down the 910 raise.  Harvey Dionne climbed up onto drift timber below the raise in an effort to spot fire.  He was unable to detect any fire at that location.  Jim Bush then arrived on a small battery-powered locomotive.  Harvey Dionne, Jim Bush, and Ulrich proceeded toward the Jewell Shaft.  They met Ronald Stansbury, haulage locomotive operator, who was proceeding from the Jewell Shaft.  Stansbury was instructed to return to the fire door and close that door. Jim Bush and Harvey Dionne returned toward the 910 raise.  Ulrich, who had accompanied Stansbury, manually closed the fire door near the Jewell Shaft and proceeded up the Jewell Shaft to the 3100 level station.

At about 11:40 a.m., Delbert (Dusty) Rhoads and Jim Salyer simultaneously telephoned Pete Bennett in the 08 machine shop.  They notified Bennett of smoke and asked Bennett to check to determine if a fire was burning in the shop area.  Bennett and Tucker, knowing there was no fire in the shop, went from the shop toward the 808 and 820 drifts.  Bennett discovered the 820 crosscut was so full of smoke he could not enter.  Bennett met Bob Bush at the 808 drift.  Upon entering that drift they found the smoke was again so thick that they could travel but a few feet.  They retreated and tried to return to the 08 machine shop.  They encountered much heavier smoke than before upon returning to the 820 crosscut.  Travel back to the 08 shop was impossible.

Bob Bush then instructed Bennett and Tucker to proceed to the Jewell Shaft.  As Bennett and Tucker were walking out the 3700 level toward the Jewell Shaft they met Jim Bush and Harvey Dionne returning toward No. 10 Shaft.  Bennett and Tucker also met Edward Davis at No. 4 Shaft and told him to leave the mine.

As Harvey Dionne and Jim Bush returned toward No. 10 Shaft, they attempted to go into the 08 machine shop area.  They reached the 820 drift and proceeded about 100 feet into the smoke before being driven out.  Harvey Dionne and Jim Bush decided to evacuate the men.  Harvey Dionne then went back to make sure the air door was closed and prepare for evacuation at the Jewell Shaft.  Jim Bush then headed back toward the 910 raise where he encountered Bob Bush, Wayne Blalock, and Pat Hobson, who were in a state of near exhaustion.  Jim Bush then attempted to remove the three men from the mine.  Jim Bush carried Bob Bush and Hobson under each of their shoulders and pushed Blalock in front of him.  About halfway to the Jewell Shaft, Jim Bush himself was near exhaustion and had to leave all three men and go to the Jewell Shaft to try to get assistance.

Harvey Dionne, after returning to the Jewell Shaft, made the decision to remove restrictions over the No. 12 borehole to allow more fresh air to reach the lower levels.

Immediately afterward, according to the depositions made by survivors, Fred (Gene) Johnson, a shift boss, while at the 3700 level No. 10 Shaft, telephoned the mine maintenance foreman, Tom Harrah, at his office in the surface machine shop at about 12 noon, and (1) requested that the stench warning system be activated and that (2) oxygen breathing apparatus be sent into the mine.  At this time, he also ordered the hoistman to prepare the cage for moving the men up to the 3100 level to get them out of the mine.  The stench warning system was activated at 12:05 p.m. and the apparatus was gathered and transported down Jewell Shaft to the 3100 level station.

Because of the dense smoke between the 910 raise and No. 10 Shaft, the man (Don Wood) operating the No. 10 Shaft "chippy" hoist on the 3700 level was forced to abandon the hoistroom.  Consequently, the "chippy" hoist was never used for evacuating men.  Survivors, who later stated that their signals to the "chippy" hoistroom went unanswered and therefore assumed the signal system was inoperative, did not realize that the hoistroom could not be occupied.

According to the hoist log taken from the No. 10 double-drum hoist on the 3100 level, the first load of men was hoisted at 12:13 p.m.  About 12 men rode the cage from the 3700 level to the 3100 level, including two cagers and three other men who had ridden up from the 4500 level.  The cage arrived at the 3100 level at 12:15 p.m. and returned to the 3700 level where the remaining men boarded.  They left the 3700 level at 12:16 p.m. and arrived at 3100 level at 12:17 p.m.  Greg Dionne reboarded the cage and went down to the 4600 level with short stops on the 3700 level and 4400 level to pick up additional men including Delbert (Dusty) Rhoads, who, among others, had ridden the "chippy" cage down after lunch.

A full cage-load of men was sent up to the 3100 level from the 4600 level at 12:24 p.m. Greg Dionne remained on the 4600 level station.  Byron Schultz, cager, reboarded the cage and went back down to 4600, arriving at 12:27 p.m., where another load of men boarded.  Dionne remained at the station and Schulz rode up to the 3100 level, arriving at 12:30 p.m.  Schulz reboarded at 3100 level and went to the 5000 level with a stop at 4600 to pick up Dionne and additional men.  The cage then traveled back to the 3100 level arriving at 12:35 p.m.  Delbert (Dusty) Rhoads and Arnold Anderson, mechanical and electrical lead men, possibly returned on this trip to the 3400 level.  Another trip was made back to the 5000 level and returned at 12:44 p.m.  Schulz and Dionne both returned to the 3100 level on this trip.  The cage went back to the 5000 level and remained 12 minutes.  The cage then went to the 5400 level and made a trip back to 3100 station.

All hoisting at No. 10 Shaft ceased at 1 :02 p.m.  While on the 3400 level, Rhoads and Anderson were standing by and requesting permission to cut off the main exhaust fans on that level.  Several persons listening on the mine telephone heard the request.  A decision was never received.

The men hoisted from the lower levels of the mine were directed by Gene Johnson on the 3100 level to travel to the Jewell Shaft via that level to be hoisted to the surface.  Gene Johnson had remained at the 3100 station to direct the crews to Jewell Shaft instead of the Silver Summit escapeway.

According to the depositions, men obtained self rescuers from storage boxes on the shaft stations.  Some of the men reported they had difficulty in using the self rescuers and they discarded them.  Many men were doubtless quickly overcome by carbon monoxide and smoke, and died before they were able to reach the Jewell Shaft.

At about 1 p.m., and within an hour after the stench warning system had been activated, the first group to attempt to locate and rescue additional survivors went underground.  An apparatus crew of four men, Robert Launhardt, Larry Hawkins, James Zingler, and Don Beebner, went across the 3100 level from the Jewell Shaft.  On the way toward No. 10 Shaft, the crew met Roger Findley, who was on his way out toward the Jewell Shaft.  Findley was having difficulty breathing and was given oxygen.  Zingler then took Findley out to good air.

The crew continued toward No. 10 Shaft and met By- ron Schulz, who appeared in serious trouble and pleaded for oxygen.  Beehner responded and gave Schulz his face mask, but went down himself as he attempted to put his mask back on.  Then Launhardt tried to assist Schulz, as Hawkins placed his mask over Beehner's face, meanwhile holding his breath as long as he could before taking another breath of air from his mask.  When Hawkins tried to place his mask again to Beehner's face, he noticed blood gushing from Beebner's mouth and nose as he lost consciousness.

Hawkins' apparatus then malfunctioned and he attempted to make his way out.  He went down twice before mustering the strength to jump onto the last car of a train which Launhardt was bringing out with Schulz aboard.  All three reached the Jewell Shaft station and were hoisted.

While these events were occurring on the 3100 level, moves were undertaken by some of the miners to rescue fellow workers on the 3700 level.  Jim Bush, a mine foreman, had called to the attention of some other miners that three men, Robert Bush, Blalock, and Hobson, were on the 3700 level.  He, himself, had tried earlier to save them, but was unable to do so.  According to depositions from survivors of the disaster, three men on the 3700 Jewell station, Ronald Stansbury, Roberto Diaz, and another man, started out to bring the men to safety.  They left the station and proceeded along the 3700 level aboard a locomotive and coach.  Bearing in mind a previous warning from Jim Bush to be careful and avoid running over one of the victims last seen by him lying across the track, the three men stopped their locomotive short of the fallen man who was later identified as Blalock.  They then went ahead on foot.  Stansbury went farthest in and located Bob Bush lying on the ground, but he, himself, was fast becoming overcome and therefore started to retreat.  On the way back, as he was stumbling along, he saw one of his fellow would-be-rescuers, Roberto Diaz, down on the ground.  Alternately crawling and stumbling, he reached some fresh air at No. 5 Shaft where he ran across Harvey Dionne, Paul Johnson, and Jasper Beare reentering the drift.

Stansbury informed them that, in addition to the three men that his group had tried to rescue, another man (Diaz) was down, making a total of four, one of whom was lying across the track.

Johnson and his companions then continued toward No. 10 Shaft.  They boarded the locomotive and car which had been used and abandoned by Stansbury and his colleagues, but had to give it up when it struck a body lying across the track and was derailed.  Realizing they could not help any of the stricken men, they started to walk back toward the Jewell Shaft.  During the trip, Johnson, too, went down, adding to the list of persons who had already died in the disaster.  Subsequently, Jim Bush, accompanied by Ulrich, made one more rescue attempt, protected only by self rescuers, but they had to abandon their efforts.

At 3:06 p.m., in order to eliminate recirculation and facilitate access to No. 10 Shaft, fans on the 3400 level were shut down from the 3700 level switch station.  Four more bodies were found at the 3700 cable shop at this time.  By 4 p.m., ventilation to the 3100 level No. 10 Shaft station had improved considerably and the air door was opened.

At 3:50 p.m., on May 8, an extensive cave-in was discovered in the 910 raise area on the 3700 level.  In preparing to send men to the lower mine levels via the No. 12 borehole as part of its plan to carry out rescue and recovery operations through a fourth front, the Bureau had obtained two man-capsules from the AEC Nevada test site together with an engineer, Frank Solaegui, employed by Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Corp., an AEC prime contractor, who supervised use of the man-capsules at the Nevada Test Site, and could provide invaluable help with the rigging and use of the capsules in the Sunshine mine.

Each of these capsules had been designed to carry two men, and were brought to the mine because a man-capsule (or "torpedo" or man-cage) which was designed and built at the mine site turned out to be inadequate for the task, primarily because it did not provide an emergency escape hatch.

In order not to divert men from the other rescue and recovery operations, the Bureau gathered 22 additional men from nearly all its Metal and Nonmetal Health and Safety districts throughout the country.  Shortly after 9 o'clock at night on May 8, the first two-man crew was lowered into the No. 12 borehole in the AEC capsule that was finally selected as most suitable for the operation.  They discovered that the borehole not only was irregular and rough but contained many slabs of loose rock which could endanger the lives of any men making the descent.  Therefore, as they were being lowered, they began to scale loose rock.  In the first hour, they progressed less than 150 feet of the total 1,I00-foot distance, and were hoisted because of extreme fatigue.  Crew after crew then followed, scaling the loose and jagged rock.  By 3 a.m. on May 9, the capsule had descended only 450 feet.  After the crews reached a depth of 580 feet, conditions improved.  The remaining 520 feet of the corkscrew-shaped borehole was in better condition, and the manned capsule was able to reach the 4800 level shortly after 7 a.m.  A fresh crew with equipment was then lowered and by noontime began exploring the 4800 level for survivors.  This crew searched the area around the bottom of the borehole and the drifts west of cars, and one victim had fallen between the locomotive and the rib.  The 4200 level self-rescuer cabinet had been entered, but no self-rescuers were found with these victims.

It was also observed that the self-rescuer boxes on 4600 level were empty.  Also, it was evident that the persons on 5200 level had attempted to build a bulkhead with brattice cloth, and the drift walls west of the Alimak raise were seen coated with a tar-like substance.

The last bodies, making a total of 91 victims, were removed from the mine at 3:40 a.m. on May 13.  Sunshine mine officials on May 15, 1972, provided Bureau officials with an updated accounting of mine personnel caught up in the disaster.  They said 173 employees were underground when the fire was discovered.  Of this number, 80 persons escaped, two survived, and 91 perished.  The figure of 80 persons who actually escaped differed from figures reported earlier by the company.  The final figure was determined when it was confirmed that only 13 of a possibIe 33 mechanics, only five of a possible 17 electricians were underground at the time of the fire, and four other employees did not go underground during the day shift on May 2.  The difficulties experienced earlier in providing a reliable count of the number of persons underground at the time of the fire stemmed from the check-in, check-out system at the mine.  On reporting for work, each mine worker normally picks up a cap lamp and battery specifically assigned to him.  However, additional cap lamps are at times sent underground to replace those whose batteries become exhausted.  Shift bosses also keep on their person, mainly for payroll purposes, a tally of individuals on the job, but in this case, many of the shift bosses perished with their crews.

Recovery Operations

Trained rescue crews from other local mines had been at the mine since 2:30 p.m.  One of these crews had been instrumental in making an early recovery of 5 bodies from the 3700 level drift near the No.5 shaft.  Several other unsuccessful rescue attempts were made this first afternoon and evening.

By early morning of May 3, as the scope of the disaster was beginning to be realized, additional help was being organized.  Other persons from the U.S. Bureau of Mines, State Mine Inspector's Office, and the United Steelworkers Health and Safety Department began arriving on the scene.

Several more unsuccessful recovery attempts were made on the morning of May 3.  On the afternoon of May 3, six more bodies were recovered from the 3100 drift.

The fresh air entering the mine through the Jewell Shaft was being monitored to insure that contaminated air was not being recirculated throughout the mine.  Rubber inflatable bags were being used to construct temporary seals and bulkheads in drifts and raises along the airways.  This enabled rescue crews to establish fresh air bases as they progressed further into the mine.

Bulkheading and airtight seals were also being placed from the Silver Summit drift on the 3100 level.  This gave two-way approach to the No. 10 hoist, which was essential for the recovery of the No. 10 shaft and lower working levels.

Work was also being done at the surface exhaust ventilation fan to clear smoke and gases from the 3100 level and 3700 level.  On May 7, rescue crews entering from the Silver Summit drift had counted, but did not recover at that time, 15 more bodies near the 3100 level No. 10 shaft station area.

In the meantime, after much preparation and some minor setbacks, the U.S. Bureau of Mines had succeeded in readying a two man "capsule" to be lowered to the 4800 level via No. 12 borehole to search for possible survivors.  These efforts led to the recovery of 2 men, Tom Wilkinson and Ronald Flory, who were found to be in good condition after being trapped for 8 days.  They were brought to the surface on the afternoon of May 9.  By early morning on May 10, 36 bodies had been recovered, 11 had been located but not recovered, 2 had been rescued, and 44 were left unaccounted for.

Work was continued on activating the No. 10 hoist.  The hoist became operational at about 3:00 p.m., May 10.  The shaft signaling system was revamped and descent to the lower levels progressed one level at a time.  By late afternoon, May 11, all bodies previously unaccounted for had been located.  The last were removed from the mine on May 13.

Investigation of Possible Causes of Fire

Investigation of the cause and the origin of the fire has continued (on a periodic basis).  In order to determine the probable cause of ignition, one must try to ascertain the location of ignition.  The general opinion is that the fire originated in the 09 vein somewhere between the 3400 and the 3550 levels, presumably near the 09 crosscut on the 3400 level.

It is believed that when sufficient heat and fire had burned through a wooden bulkhead on the 3400 level 09 drift causing the bulkhead to collapse, smoke and gases were then picked up by the exhaust ventilation system and recirculated down the 910 raise and other raises along this route to the 3700 level and throughout the general working areas of the mine.

It is believed that the collapse of this bulkhead caused a short circuit of the ventilation, thus allowing the exhaust air to become the main source of air movement in the intake or fresh air system.  This was unknowingly perpetuated by the closing of the fire doors on the 3100 level and the 3700 level.  As the two main exhaust fans situated on the 3400 level continued to operate throughout the time of the fIre and were not shut off until 3:00 p.m. on May 7, when a fire fighting crew shut the main power feeder off at the 3700 level substation.

Oxygen and Acetylene Cutting and Welding

The possibility of ignition resulting from the cutting of rock bolts with an acetylene oxygen cutting torch on the 3400 level may have been the indirect cause of starting the fire although it is very unlikely that the fire began at the exact place that the cutting was being done.  The area where the cutting was being conducted was no less than 300 feet on the downwind side from the nearest timbered area, which was the 09 drift intersection reported to have been thoroughly wet down.

There is a vague possibility that the hot bolts or some smoldering material such as wooden wedges, headboards, or rags may have been collected and disposed of behind timbers close to the 09 drift intersection, to flare up after the three workers left the area.

Smoking of Cigarettes

It was found that two men that worked on the 3400 the morning of the fire smoked cigarettes but it is doubtful that anyone could smoke cigarettes in the area of where it is believed the fire started.  According to company personnel there was no way of gaining entry to 09 drift on 3400, and due to the high velocity of air, 1600 feet per minute in the outby, it is doubtful anyone could smoke cigarettes in this extremely fast air current (not impossible but doubtful).

Electricity

Subsequent investigations have indicated there were no energized electrical wiring or installations in the burn area.

Spontaneous Combustion

Because of the large amount of timbers that had been previously used in the area where the fire is believed to have started, plus the reported accumulation of other combustible materials, the possibility of fire ignition by means of spontaneous combustion was given a lot of credulity even though no one in the Coeur d' Alene Mining District can remember an instance where a fire was initiated due to spontaneous combustion from old mine timbers. The 09 drift on 3400 had been bulkheaded off in the early 60s to prevent ventilation leakage and to restrict entry of persons into the worked out areas.  It is not known for certain every material used in the construction of these bulkheads.

It was reported that the timber sets in this intersection was laced with shiplap and/or plywood boards chinked along the walls with burlap.  The boards were covered with tar paper and then sprayed with urethane foam.  The entire intersection, for an estimated 50 feet, was slick walled with plywood, tar paper and urethane foam, and canopied overhead in the same manner.  It is not known what all materials were previously disposed of in the abandoned worked out area of the mine, but it is likely that several materials classified as combustible would have been found in the old workings, i.e., old broken timbers, rags, burlap, paper wrappings from lunches, explosive containers and probably explosives.  Any or all of these materials could have contributed to spontaneous combustion if the right conditions existed.

Arson

There has been no substantial evidence provided that leads us to believe the fire was deliberately started.