Monday, May 2, 2016

May 2nd, 44 years later


T    The following is, with minor corrections, Chapter 35 from my book-length memoir          "Bridge Ahead" published in 2008.  Today, May 2, 2016, is the 44th anniversary of            the mine disaster in which killed ninety one men. A memorial service is held each            year at 11:00 am at the Big Creek exit of highway I-90. 
On May 2, 1972, I was working as usual in the Clinic. Around noon, we began to get rumors of a fire in the Sunshine Mine. No one knew the extent, but the general feeling was, a hard-rock mine had little to catch fire. We doctors conferred about emergency measures for burns and possible other trauma, and continued our regular work while we waited for the first casualties.
Only two had arrived at the hospital by the time I made rounds that evening. One of them I knew personally—Byron Schultz, a cage (elevator) operator at the Number Ten Shaft—who came in with smoke inhalation and probable carbon monoxide poisoning. Later newspaper accounts said that, after the initial evacuation of miners, the first rescue crew to descend that afternoon had found Byron attempting to make his way out through thick smoke on the 3100 level. He was near collapse, and a member of the rescue team gave him his own oxygen apparatus to breathe, but soon collapsed himself. When Byron had revived enough to talk, he told the rescue team, “They’re all dead back there!” The team’s monoxide detector showed dangerously high levels. Beginning to suffer toxic symptoms themselves, they returned tothe surface. Byron recovered, and got credit for saving several miners that day by staying at his post until the smoke drove him out. About sixty of the day shift escaped, warned by a pungent skunk-like odor dumped into the underground ventilation system to signal urgently Get out NOW! More than ninety others, including some who had re-entered the mine on rescue missions, were still underground.
   A patient of mine arrived at the hospital just at the end of evening rounds. Hysterically she wept, “Ijust know my husband’s dead!” There was little to offer her, beyond a listening ear and a sedative. I privately thought she might be right.
The following day was my day off, and with some hesitation I phoned the mine office, asking if a doctor could be of any help. The switchboard operator gave me an emphatic yes. I drove over, parked outside the gate, and identified myself to the police officer keeping the crowd at bay outside. He allowed me in; I passed through a gathering of family members anxiously awaiting news of husbands, sons, and fathers, and I climbed the stairs to the mine operations office. Miners, company officials and rescue crew members crowded around a large table covered with ventilation diagrams, cold coffee cups, and half-eaten sandwiches. They had been working for hours to get some safe ventilation scheme to clear the mine’s air without feeding the fire, which appeared to be centered on the 3,400 level. I had worked in Kellogg five years now; my patients included some of the state police, telephone operators, miners and mine officials. I could go freely about the mine premises, but not into the mine entrance where the air was still poisonous. My first job was to attend a mine security man who had breathed some monoxide, but who recovered without trouble. Otherwise there was nothing to do but stay available if needed. I wandered among the crowd outside, who were being attended by Red Cross and local volunteers serving free soup, sandwiches, and coffee. Someone set up rows of cots in a warehouse where people could rest during their vigil.
About noon that day, an electric donkey engine towing a string of flat-bed mine cars brought out six more bodies wrapped in blankets. I examined them briefly, identified them, officially pronounced them dead, and sent them to a temporary morgue in Kellogg. One was the husband of my anxious patient of the night before.
My mind focused on incidental features, to keep me from the enormity of the tragedy unfoldng around me. First aid texts often describe monoxide victims as having a cherry-red color. Actually, their color resembled sunburn, quite unexpected in men who work underground, away from the sun. None had any burns or significant wounds. Because the rescue crews could carry only a two-hour supply of oxygen with them, and most of that was used in getting to and from the work area, the recovery of these six bodies had required the full efforts of two rescue crews. Thereafter, all attention was directed toward finding possible survivors. Bodies encountered underground were left there till later, which led to other problems in the very moist, warm, underground air.
The six bodies went by car into Kellogg. Members of the miners’ families in the waiting crowd made it plain that they would break the head of any news reporter outside the gate who tried to take pictures.
A chance question about medical help underground got me an invitation to join the next mine rescue class. Curious about the training, I joined about thirty-five miners for an eight-hour condensed course in fire control, gas monitoring, and oxygen apparatus. We learned to dismantle, check, and reassemble each valve and tube in our McCaa oxygen packs, working as carefully as a sky-diver packing his own parachute. We donned the apparatus and climbed in tandem up a steep slope to get used to the forty-two pound weight on our backs and the sweat fogging the inside of our masks.
As it turned out, they needed little medical aid underground, but my classmates spent many hours searching for survivors, and later recovering bodies and fighting fire. I still have my Bureau of Mines certificate qualifying me for underground rescue (long obsolete, 35 years later) but I never had any work to do underground.
I stayed part of the night. Nothing on paper can reproduce the feeling of standing in the crowd, that chilly night, watching the air-exhaust stack on the hill above us propelling a constant billowing stream of smoke into the air, or speculating what the sudden turning of the big wheel atop the mine shaft structure might mean.
Help now poured in from everywhere. Experienced mine rescue teams from British Columbia, Montana, and Utah joined the local crews. Improved oxygen equipment, lighter in weight, arrived by air from England. It allowed three hours underground, and used liquid oxygen that cooled the wearer. All sorts of ingenious devices arrived: body cooling equipment for survivors, closed-circuit TV adapted to underground use, even a special two-man capsule that could be lowered down an air shaft which became the prototype of capsules used in later mine disasters.
High school students volunteered for the Red Cross, or for church-operated baby sitting services. Food poured in. A soft drink company set up a free fountain. All the stores and bars collected funds for the families. The Bean Association of America, whatever that was, donated six tons of beans. One offers what one has.
KWAL, the local radio station, stayed on the air all night with news bulletins and music. The disk-jockey told Burley Herrin, a local minister volunteering at the mine, “No matter what kind of music I play, people call up and complain. What should I do?”
“         "Play two westerns and a hymn,” the minister advised.
The eleven-man county medical society set up a schedule to put a doctor at the mine around the clock, and the nurses did the same. We did mine rescue physical exams, assembled supplies for when survivors might need them, treated headaches and sunburn in the crowd. We stood by while family members told grandpa, “who has a bad heart,” that his son was among the dead.
Two morticians volunteered for mine rescue training in order to go underground and stabilize the bodies until there was time to bring them out. Unfortunately, both men had been working without sleep for so long that they could not pass the necessary physical exam.
The only group apparently pursuing its own agenda was the national news media. The reporters had a tendency to draw a conclusion first, then seek evidence to support it. Perhaps their editors back home had told them to look for tear-jerker pictures, or statements against mine management. Anyway, it wasn’t long before the crowd excluded them from the premises. They then took station across the road from the mine entrance and interviewed people coming out and going in. Occasionally the police allowed a pool photographer in to picture some special event like the governor’s tour.
Day after day went by, with no apparent progress. Number Ten Hoist had heavy smoke damage to be cleaned from its switches and motor before rescuers could even travel down to the working areas of the mine. Mine timbers and the plastic material of the ventilation pipes themselves continued to feed the fire. The rescue teams sealed off bulkheads, only to have smoke appear from another of the many connecting tunnels. Underground power lines broke; underground power substations overheated. Smoke and moisture fouled electric contacts in the hoist machinery and had to be cleaned and dried. Many of the trapped men worked in the newest part of the mine, served only by Number Ten hoist.
There were other escape routes, but I tried to imagine climbing twenty stories up a ladder even in good air. If I had done so, I would only have reached the next level above, and would have to repeat that ten more times to reach the 3700-foot level that connected to the Jewel Shaft a mile away. The mine rescue leaders were correct in refusing to risk rescuers’ lives until they had dependable hoist machinery and communications.
The one surge of joy and hope came after a week of vigil, when rescuers found two miners alive on 4800 level. Word came that they were in good shape and had refused stretchers. They came up one at a time through a ventilation shaft, riding the new rescue capsule to the 3700 level. Everyone gathered around the tunnel entrance, jostling for a better view, the two miners’ families in front. Even the less emotional among us joined the cheering as Ron Flory and Tom Wilkerson, both bearded, smiling, and hanging on to their lunch pails, walked out under their own power, though supported by rescuers. Their wives joined them in the ambulances as they drove off to the hospital for an overnight checkup. They owed their survival to the air ventilation shaft and a door protecting them from the monoxide.
Every wife still missing a husband then believed her man would come out alive. But when Number Ten Hoist finally came back in operation, on the tenth day, rescue crews found only dead men, finally accounting for all the missing. The coroner determined that all had died that first day, some still sitting around their coffee cups at lunch break, perhaps not even aware of their danger. Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, and often precedes the smell of smoke.
I saved a chart from the mine rescue class, showing the effects of carbon monoxide at various concentrations and time exposures. One tenth of one percent concentration causes unconsciousness if breathed for an hour. Three days after the fire’s outbreak, the 3700 foot level still measured 4.5% monoxide, enough to cause almost instant death without a respirator.
That fire changed mine safety rules nation-wide. The Safety Department no longer locks up self-rescue masks to prevent pilfering. (Miners had found that they made great inhalators while spray-painting rooms at home.) Everyone going underground now carries a canteen-sized rescue breather on his belt, allowing him an hour of breathing in an emergency. Oxygen equipment at the hoistrooms allows operators to stay at their posts until all miners are out.
Most miners won’t work anywhere but underground. Many of the fire-fighters we examined in the weeks following the disaster had the same surnames as those who had died. Next to the Big Creek exit of Interstate 90, a larger-than-life statue of a hard rock miner and his drill, by sculptor Ken Lonn, memorializes those 91 men lost that day.
Sunshine Mine remained closed for several years. It meant the loss of more than 300 jobs, and nearly one hundred families without a bread-winner. The Sunshine Fire contributed to an era of economic decline affecting the Silver Valley for years afterward.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

3 am: what's goin' on?

We eighty-year-olds are often up in the middle of the night, for reasons that need not concern younger readers at the moment. Usually, I can get right back to sleep for a couple more hours. But sometimes, like 3 am last Tuesday morning April 26th, I lay awake thinking about some writing projects coming up. Not worrying, just mulling over thoughts or maybe planning ahead, or just enjoying the night sounds of a small town.

      I began wondering if the sound of thunder signaled approaching rain . . . . no, a peal of thunder doesn't last that long . . . maybe a couple of trucks passing by? Finally, I got back up, threw on my warm bathrobe, stood looking out the living-room window.

      Yeah, trucks. Big semis, all west-bound, some followed by a car or two. They keep coming, in pairs or threes every few minutes. There's nothing open this early west of us on McKinley Avenue between here and the next town, two miles farther on. My imagination suggests a clandestine military assembly forming up somewhere with evil intent. Or maybe the town council has finally decided to repair our street and is getting an early morning start. But it's been going on for an hour now; five more long big rigs have just passed, one right after another.

      Common sense starts to creep in. There must be a bad accident closing the west-bound lanes of I-90 (that parallels our street, a half-mile away) It's four o'clock now; I turn on the TV, but the news channels are just more Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. No local news. 4:15 still steady traffic westbound. Time to go back to bed and snatch another hour of sleep.

      By 6 am, I was up and out across the street where a gap in the buildings allows glimpses of I-90. I see ordinary traffic in both directions. But big trucks are still passing my home on the street behind me. Interstate 90 is the major highway from Seattle to Boston and points in between. I have often clocked the large-truck traffic to average one or two every minute, a total of between 1,000 and 2,000 every 24 hours (many long-distance drivers prefer night time to avoid local daytime traffic.)

      Heavy traffic continued on our street about nine hours altogether. The obstruction on the highway was a wrecked east-bound truck whose driver had failed to negotiate a curve at the west end of Kellogg and had veered into the west-bound lanes, crashed and soon caught fire. Both the driver and his passenger walked away with only minor injuries. My home street is the only other connection to the next highway entry point, two miles west. Traffic had continued beyond where I could see the distant highway, and then was diverted back into town at an exit only a hundred yards from the wreck. The police and fire crew were very efficient, but it takes a lot of time to transfer tons of cargo and then lift the remains of a huge vehicle out of the way. Mountains to the north and south of our valley allow a fifty-mile detour for ordinary cars, but the big freighters would need to go an extra 150 miles. The West is not all flat desert.

      More about the Republicans next. They seem to be having a major wreck of their own in California this week. And we Americans may not walk away unscathed.