'The Deep Dark' Chronicles Deadly 1972 Mine Fire
The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine tells the story of a deadly fire in Idaho's Sunshine Mine in May 1972. Scott Simon talks with author Gregg Olsen.
Tuesday, May 2
Coeur d’Alene Mining District
Morning rush hour in the Idaho panhandle was a stream of primer-splattered bombers and gleaming pickups on big tires that pushed the cab halfway to the sky. All were driven by miners hurrying to get underground. Many rode together so their wives and girlfriends could use their cars to run errands during the day. Some smoked and nursed hangovers with coffee as they planned their day underground: how much they’d have to blast, and how much muck they’d haul out. Some of the best of them took the Big Creek exit between Kellogg and Wallace. Around a sharp curve on the edge of the Bitterroot Mountains, buildings congregated among the steep folds of stony terrain bisected by the rushing waters of Big Creek. A giant green structure clad in sheet metal was planted as though a twister had dropped it in on the edge of the parking lot. A few other buildings flanked the green monster, though none was nearly as commanding. On the other side of the creek was a backbonelike array of metal and wood-frame buildings that included a mill, dry house, machine shop, warehouse, hoist house, assay office, electric shop, drill shop, and compressor shop. The most visually pleasing edifice was the personnel office, a two-story, variegated redbrick structure with a peaked roof and a walk-up pay window. A sign proclaimed that the property belonged to the Sunshine Mining Company, but the biggest billboard faced the mine yard. In demi-bold letters it read, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life–live it safely."
Sunshine has long been legendary, even sacred, among miners. Maine brothers Dennis and True Blake discovered what would become Sunshine in 1884 when a soft glint beckoned from an outcropping on the eastern ridge of Big Creek Canyon. Assaying indicated tetrahedrite, a superior silver ore, and not galena or lead, which was scavenged by other area mines. For a couple of decades the former farm boys worked underground by candlelight while mules hauled out ore and dragged it down Big Creek Canyon on skids. They quietly made a small fortune, calling their discovery the Yankee Lode. Later, in 1921, when they sold their stake to Yakima, Washington, interests, it was renamed Sunshine Mining Company.
It was another decade before Sunshine came into its own, when, at a depth of 1,700 feet, an ore vein of astounding breadth—23 feet—was discovered. In time, the mine would give up more silver than any other mine in the world, a distinction it would hold for decades. In addition to lead and copper, it was also a leading producer of antimony, a metallic by-product primarily used to harden lead. Sunshine’s triumph was the result of the development effort led by the go-for-broke, risk-taking owners from Washington State. Most silver mines followed veins from outcroppings that eventually became stringers and petered out. Outside of the Coeur d’Alene Mining District, it was a rare operation that extracted ore at depths greater than 1,000 feet. Not only did Sunshine have viable ore below 1,200 feet, but in the decades that followed, crosscuts chased high-grade ore bodies all the way to the 5600 level. Sunshine by itself was far richer and produced more silver than all the mines on the fabled Comstock Lode combined.
Idaho mines shared more than just their luminous underground Dagwood sandwich of lead, silver, and zinc. Labor strikes, chronic absenteeism, and pumped-up wanderlust made the workforces somewhat fluid. Tough and experienced miners moved freely among Galena, Lucky Friday, Star, Silver Summit, Bunker Hill, and Sunshine. But even as itchy-footed as miners could be, every man had his home mine. It was the mine to which he knew he could always return.
Around the time Bob Launhardt, forty-one, backed his ’68 maroon Chrysler Newport out of his Pinehurst driveway, the sun had risen, leaving the sky awash in luminous Maxfield Parrish hues. The men of Sunshine’s graveyard shift were leaving the mine. As safety engineer, Launhardt made it a practice to get underground as early as possible—before the day shift rode down to their working levels. He liked to get a head start on the day. Tall and lanky, Launhardt had dark, wavy hair that he combed back with a slight swoop. Black-framed glasses made him look like a schoolteacher, or maybe a middle-aged Buddy Holly. After a five-year absence, Launhardt returned to the district in February 1972, bailing out of another job going nowhere, wanting to reconnect with a part of his life where he felt worthwhile. He was quiet and thoughtful, the kind of man who got lost in a crowd, yet Launhardt believed he stood out because of his fierce dedication to the safety of the men of Sunshine. No one questioned his passion for his work. It was apparent in every move he made. Many, however, found it difficult to connect with him on a personal level. Guys he’d known for years never even got his name right. They called him Bob Longhart. Part of the distance was the result of his personality, but it was also his status as a salaried man. Miners saw Launhardt, other managers, and office workers as outsiders. The fact that Sunshine’s owners were now New Yorkers who hadn’t blasted a round in their lives didn’t help. Yet managers and bean counters were necessary. Silver mining was, after all, a business–and a dangerous one, at that. As safety engineer, Launhardt was there to make certain that each day every man who went into the mine came out alive. That involved working with national and state labor agencies and the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM) to ensure that safety regulations were in place. It meant seeing that equipment was up to date and miners were properly trained in evacuation and rescue techniques. Guarding miners’ lives was a crucial job because so much could go wrong. Government statisticians and mining district undertakers frequently acknowledged mining as the most perilous job on or under the earth. Some assumed the safety engineer’s position existed solely to meet government regulations, mitigate the risk of union complaints, and dodge civil lawsuits. Some mine managers considered it little more than a necessary nuisance. The workers themselves understood that there were ways to avoid injury, but they dismissed many of those measures. Many considered risk and danger essential to the job’s mystique. Launhardt, a bespectacled Goody-Two-shoes among his peers, believed that if he could get men to think before they blast, to wear safety glasses, to cool it on the horseplay, just maybe he could save a life. His biggest challenge in 1972 was the same as always: How do you convince men that accidents are unacceptable and unnecessary? For Launhardt, who had once studied to be a Lutheran minister, promoting safety became as important as preaching the word of God.
There were many reasons for his vigilance, and all were damned good ones. Sometimes men fell down shafts so deep that nothing remained but bloody clothes and serrated splinters of bone. Rockbursts or airblasts, however, were the most feared of district hazards. Those occurred when the stone ceiling exploded under pressure and sent slabs of rock the size of camping trailers down to pulverize men into biological splat. Other times, it was the floor that gave way. The lucky ones were buried alive until someone could move two tons of rock to free them. Although Sunshine had its share, the district’s Galena Mine was considered one of the worst, if not the worst, for rockbursts. Anyone who’d worked there longer than a month experienced the sudden and frightening reaction of rock giving way to pressure. Old hands knew that as long as the rock was talking—making characteristic popping and grinding noises—they’d be all right. When it got quiet, that was the time to think about moving to a different location or taking lunch early. Whenever it was quiet underground, look out.
In the battle being waged by men with jackleg drills against the fractured and folded metamorphic world of the underground, men frequently lost. Every man knew there was no guarantee he’d ever see daylight again.
Launhardt knew some accidents had more to do with human error—little mistakes that miners made doing things they did right every other day. Veteran miner Stanley Crawford’s accident was a case in point. Crawford had been setting charges on some blocking in a shaft, as he’d done countless times. He set four fuses, but only three blasts rumbled through the mine. Crawford was confident that two had ignited simultaneously, thus obscuring the distinct sound of a fourth explosion.
“I’m gonna go look,” he said.
His partner didn’t like the idea. “Stay here and have a cigarette. We can check it after dinner.”
But Crawford was impatient and insistent. As he bent closer to take a look in the smoky air, the charge ignited. It was the last thing he ever saw. His eyes were blasted from their sockets like a pair of soft-boiled eggs.
Sunshine’s safety engineer knew the inherent reasons for Crawford’s mistake. The greater the danger, the more reckless men became. It was a mix of laziness, tempting fate for the buzz of adrenaline, and just plain ignoring the obvious. More men were hurt and even more died because someone decided to push something to a new limit. Miners sometimes took the extra step toward trouble. Trouble could be a rush.
Some health hazards were slower in catching up with the miners. Airborne silica turned lungs into wheezing dust bags. Corneas were trashed by gritty dust belching through the working areas, forced along by the man-made cyclone of ventilation fans. The omnipresent dust that bloomed inside the working areas after blasting consisted of near-microscopic particles of lead, tetrahedrite, and razorlike pieces of silica from the quartz that frequently hosted the veins being mined. After each round was blasted, the air thickened with gray dust. Miners breathed it all in. Some tried to deplete the cloud through the judicious use of water over a muck pile as they were slushing out their stope, the working area whose name was a bastardization of the word “step” from the days when mining was done in a stairstep fashion. But water only goes so deep–no more than six inches–and men and machines stop for nothing. They didn’t wear any kind of respirator or paper filter, though common sense would indicate that such precautions might help. Some of that was the result of tradition and ignorance, but it was also that Sunshine’s underground was so hot that it was difficult enough to breathe even without a barrier across your mouth. Breathing a little easier underground at age twenty was paid for at age sixty, when scar tissue from abrasive dust caught up with a man’s lungs. More than one old miner ended his days with an oxygen canister, a metal mongrel trailing on a leash with every step.
The steam-table heat of the mine and the repetitious work of mining machinery also created inescapable peril. Hands, wrists, and legs cramped up to such a degree that men looked like aberrant sand crabs, with arms all bunched up and hands locked in claws. One miner cramped up while waiting at the station for the cage, the underground elevator system. When the cage arrived, he couldn’t stand up. His legs had turned into rusted C-clamps tightening around the bench. To beat cramping, some ate potassium-rich bananas. They thought a banana, not an apple, kept the doctor away. One miner opened a pickle jar, drained all the juice into a glass–and chugged the briny solution in two gulps. The light-green-tinged liquid tasted like shit, but the salt did the trick. In the mid-1960s, Sunshine installed enormous ventilation fans that improved conditions, but for those guys working underground, it still felt like being in Panama in the middle of August.
Most miners became astute at reading their bodies. Before the onset of a headache—when a dull throbbing alerted a man before the pain jumped into a sledgehammer on the cranium—was the only time to stem the inevitable cramping. Salt tablets stored throughout the working levels were the preventive, of course, and miners ate handfuls all day long. Wait too long, and fingers, toes, and other body parts started to curl, and nothing short of a bath in a vat of Morton’s would cure a case of heat cramps. A man in his teens and twenties could handle it better than an older miner, but even youth didn’t guarantee immunity. In the underground, nothing did.
Chronic heat-related indigestion was also an underground scourge. Men had to drag themselves to the station to get out of that hot, stinking hole, sometimes feeling sicker than they ever had in their lives. One Sunshine miner got so ill from the heat that he vomited all the way from 4600 to the 3700 station. As strong as they were, men had been shaken like paint mixers all day long underground, and they arm-wrestled with 115-pound jackleg rock drills in their stopes and rained sweat from every gland. One miner chomped Rolaids like Beer Nuts; another carried a bottle of sickly pink goo that he swigged with the same gusto as a whiskey shot.
Two variables ensured that underground accidents could and would come to pass—the earth was unstable and men took chances. Launhardt knew how men thought underground because he’d worked there. I’ve done this before. I can do it again. Injuries were an accepted cost of the business. Broken ribs and cracked skulls were the hidden costs of grandma’s silver tea set, the film in a young family’s camera, or the precious metals used in electronic components. Timber framing and five-or-six-foot-long rock bolts were rarely enough to permanently shore up the guts of the earth. That realization was a thorn in his side. Launhardt knew that there were very few things that he could personally do to eliminate injuries from a fall of ground or rockburst—the greatest source of serious injury or fatality. Changing behavior when tradition, history, and male bravado had entrenched it was beyond his influence. Instead, Launhardt would preach safety to those who took an interest, and he’d see that lifesaving equipment was in working order. And when inevitable calamity occurred, he would suit up with the rescue team to extricate a miner from a two-ton tomb. If the accident involved a fatality, federal USBM and Idaho State Mine inspectors would arrive to conduct what was seen by many as nothing more than a cursory examination. Safety violations were cataloged and a narrative of the accident was captured on inspectors’ clipboards and they’d move on. Up through the 1960s, there were few teeth to whatever laws were on the books, anyway. If an operator could make an easy change to improve underground safety without too much expense, it usually got done. If it could be put off, it was.
Excerpted from The Deep Dark by Gregg Olsen Copyright © 2005 by Gregg Olsen. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.