The Deepest and Darkest Silver Valley Story

On May 2, 1972 a fire broke out in the Sunshine Mine east of Kellogg. As my daughter quotes in her script for History Day, “That morning, on May 2, 1972, 172 miners entered the Sunshine Mine to go to work. That afternoon only eighty-one miners came out. Ninety-three were missing.”

A few fleeting memories as an 8-year-old included images of charred and burned bodies in a mine shaft, body bags being stored across the street in a newly constructed, but not yet open nursing home, and many funerals being held at the church across the street from our home.

The year 2002 marked the 30th anniversary of the disaster, and I came up with an idea at work to design and publish a booklet listing a small write up of the 91 men who died in the fire, and also include some pictures and stories from the time. We also asked locals to submit pictures and stories of family members who had died in the fire.

For weeks I poured over newspaper, reading the obituaries of the men who died in the fire. This was a very moving experience. Ad I read the stories of men who liked to hunt, and ride motorcycles, and the wives and children that were left behind, I felt like I started to get to know each of them as I read their stories.

And I was surprised at how many kids I went to school with whose dads died in the fire. When I was in third grade at Sunnyside School, not many students at that school had dads who worked in the Sunshine Mine. And by the time I entered 7th grade at Kellogg Junior High School, and students from Canyon School, Pinehurst Elementary, Silver King School, Sunnyside Elementary, and Elk Creek all combined, kids didn’t talk much about the fact that they had lost their father in the fire.

But many had, and it made me look at some of my classmates in a different light when I saw their names listed as the surviving children on the final lines of the obituaries.

Some of the men were not buried in the valley, so their obituaries were not written in the local newspaper. Even though the Sunshine Mine was closed at the time, I was fortunate to have a connection with the then current manager of the mine, Harry Cougher, who gave me access to the employment records of the men who died in the fire. From the 9 or 10 men who died in the fire who didn’t have obits in the paper, I was able to look at their records and find enough information to write up a decent write up on each of them.

One of the most interesting things I kept dealing with in the process of writing this publication was the inconsistencies of the spelling of the men’s names. I remember having to ask the daughter of one of the men who died the correct spelling of their last name, because I found so many inconsistencies.

As I mentioned earlier, we had locals submit pictures and articles about their family members who died in the fire. One of the most interesting articles was written by a woman who was four years older than me at the time of the fire. She had a sister who was my age. Her name is Cindy Byington Faraca, and her story centered on the fact that the fire happened right around the time of her 12th birthday, and that each year when her birthday rolls around, she can’t forget all the memories of that time in 1972 each year her birthday rolls around.

So many lives lost. So many lives changed. Mothers without sons. Wives without husbands. Children without fathers.

This truly was one of the deepest, darkest periods in the Silver Valley, and in the lives of the families who lost the men to this tragedy.


Go Figure said...

I knew few of the men that perished that day in May. Years later I represented some of the survivors in workers compensation matters, amd became frinds. What struck me the most is how emotionally strong they are, to a man. They didn't stop living and working, when it would have been so easy to have done so. Ultimately it was subsequent injuries that limited them and their ability to work. What struck me the most, however, was that despite all that these men had been through the insurance companies, responsible for their subsequent work related injuries, treated them, to a man, like dirt. Monuments and poems engraved thereon are nice...but they don't put bread on the table and heat in a house for those who survived and tried to continue on. For every man that died and for every family that was torn apart by the tragedy, the poet whose eloquence is memorialized with them trod on many times more people.

Carol Woolum Roberts said...

Starr, it seems to be a reoccuring theme for the miners in this valley. History seems to repeat itself, just in different ways. It is wrong, no matter what the circumstances, and what the year. It was wrong in the early years when the Italian miners who died weren't even identified in the paper because of their race. It was wrong when the men were locked up in the bullpens and their families were left to suffer. And it is wrong now. You just keep doing your job to help them, because it is one way that will hopefully help make a difference.