Authors: Gregg Olsen
If Loving You Is Wrong
Confessions of an American Black Widow
Copyright Â© 2005 by Gregg Olsen
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Published by Crown Publishers, New York, New York.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The deep dark : disaster and redemption in America's richest silver mine / by Gregg Olsen.â1st ed.
1.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Silver mines and miningâAccidentsâUnited States.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Title.
Author, mentor, and friend
EARSES WERE IN SHORT SUPPLY IN
1972. A pickup hauled a dead miner to a hillside cemetery slashed with freshly turned earth. Another arrived in a station wagon. Still others waited on an assembly line to meet their maker. Just after the tragic outcome of a fire that trapped almost one hundred hardrock miners in Sunshine Mine, my salesman dad passed through Kellogg on his way home to suburban Seattle. He saw the coffin in that pickup bounce up and down, threatening to pitch out onto the road. That bumpy ride was the culmination of a cruel eight-day waitâa vigil, both stoic and shattered, that was captured in the media. For outsiders, the serial funerals were the end of the story. For those living there, resolution has not been so easy. In the world of hardrock mining, a volatile place of explosions gone awry, cave-ins, and fortunes made and lost overnight, nothing has ever been easy.
Northern Idaho was the epicenter of America's hardrock mining industry. Within the region were the nation's largest, deepest, and most prosperous silver and lead mines. Bunker Hill had more than 180 miles of tunnels honeycombing the craggy mountains faced with yellow tamarack. The deepest was Star-Morning at 8,100 feetâhalfway to China, locals insisted. And the richest, Kellogg's Sunshine Mine, had given up more than 300 million ounces of silverâone-fifth of America's total output. When ore prices were good, Sunshine was a treasure trove of staggering wealth.
In good times, the most ambitious and, some would say, luckiest minersâthose who had the very best contracts with the companyâdrilled and exploded their way to paydays of $1,000 or more a week. In less prosperous eras, during labor strikes or when operations were cut because high-quality ore was scarce, families only just squeaked by. And yet, no matter how long the downturn, men stayed because mining was about being a man as much as it was about bringing home a paycheck. Fathers like my own put in long hours and worked hard. Driving from Seattle to Montana several times a year and back again, my dad covered a substantial sales territory. But his job was air-conditioned. Highball-lunched. Miners didn't push paper. Their work was the type that we mimicked when we played at being menâfirefighters, policemen, soldiers, and the rest. Though we were destined for desk jobs, we still pretended to catch the robber. We fantasized about blowing up a mountainside. Dirt clods were bombs. Nobody played at being a sewer-pipe salesman, my dad's occupation.
ORE THAN THREE DECADES AFTER THE FIRE,
WENT TO MEET
people whose faces I had seen in the news when I was young and had first understood that for some, being a man meant your job put your life on the line. I checked into the Sands Motel in Smelterville, a fading town buried in the mire of a past from which it took its name. Today there is no smelter. Beyond the Wayside Grocery and the Happy Landing Bar, there isn't much of anything at all. The Sands' front-desk clerk, a young woman with a pleasantly askew smile, said I'd have to jiggle my key in the lock.
“Your room is twelve, but the key tag says nine. It'll work.”
I went upstairs, twisted the key, and stashed my bag. A few minutes later I was in Kellogg, the heart of the Coeur d'Alene Mining District, driving past McDonald's and the Super 8 Motel. A multimillion-dollar gondola and ski slope, the crown jewels of an attempt to turn the town into a tourism center, beckon riders to the top of Silver Mountain. Those who live there feel it is too little, too late.
Kellogg has always worn its good times with brisk sales of new cars, its bad times with vacant storefronts. Soaped-out windows and ample parking on the main street reveal a town in the midst of another, deeper economic dip. At 10:00 a.m., the busiest place in town is a tavern called the Long Shot. A queue of graying men, beaten and battered by the elements underground, commands the barstools from one end to the other and cigarette smoke hangs like a canopy. While some involved in the Sunshine fire fled, many more, like the men at the bar, stayedâminers to the end. One woman runs a Kellogg pool hall while her ex-husband lives in a Smelterville neighborhood wrapped in Cyclone fence and lined with ancient RVs, their bumper stickers recalling a past when all were younger and their billfolds heavier. The woman can't shake the days of uncertainty and tragedy from more than thirty years ago, and still wells up with tears at the mention of the fire. But her miner ex-husband gets right to the point.
“I wanted to get out of there alive,” said the man, now in his late fifties. “I'm sure all of the guys felt the same way.”
Another miner shares the bond of survival with the Smelterville man, but seldom sees his old pal. Their lives, however, remain parallel. When they walk through Kellogg, people still regard them with mixed emotions.
Why them? Why did they survive?
Back in my room at the Sands, I wondered about their lives, how different the place might be if so many hadn't perished at the same time. A Top 40 band played downstairs and the music thumped like a bruising fist against the wall of my room. I followed the music downstairs. The patrons were mostly in their twenties, about the same age as the youngest who died in the fire. Fewer of them work in mining today, though some who do call it
They are not as tough as their fathers were. Sons seldom follow their dads deep into the darkness for a seesawing paycheck and a chance at a hard-fought dream. Some lie and say they are smarter and mining is too dangerous; there are other ways to make a so-so living, better ways to get an adrenaline rush. Those are excuses born of a catastrophe that vanquished the soul of a town and hastened the end of a distinctly American way of life. Every day, people remember the date, May 2, 1972. It is their local “when Kennedy got shot” touchstone. It rewrote the lives of everyone, and even now its extraordinary legacy of unity and divisiveness is palpable. It is as if the smoke never really cleared.
OT FAR FROM WHERE A MINER GUTTED THE EARTH, A THIN
haze curled through the hot, moist air and fluttered teasingly. At first the wispy cloud hesitated and hugged the edges of the stope, the blasted-out chamber where men extracted muck, rock, dust, and silver-laden ore. Then it swirled onward, deeper into the void. In the beginning, the miner who first smelled it might not have paid much attention. At depths of more than a mile, smoke was a constant element of the subterranean environment. Engines that crushed and carried muck, and blasts from ammonium nitrate and nitroglycerin, released thin smoke throughout the mine every day. The scent of burning tobacco also permeated the air. Deep underground, on the hunt for silver in the famed Sunshine Mine near Kellogg, Idaho, close to two hundred men were in grave trouble.
The fingernails of the miner who first noticed the smoke were cracked. His busted-up hands were calloused from rotating rock into position through a heavy steel grate over a chute that sent everything crashing down into hungry cars on the track level below. The man's eyebrows were coated in dust, and the grime of his sweat ringed his neck. He worked on the 5,000-foot levelâthe figure designating its depth below the surface. He wore coveralls so stiff from ore dust and drill oil that his pant legs remained tubular when he took them off at the end of his shift. On his head was a miner's hardhat; its lamp shot a beam through the dark emptiness that awaited him at every turn. He looked up from what he was doing and realized he was in danger. His gaze still fixed on the oncoming smoke, he reached for the valve of the oxygen cylinder on a portable cutting and welding cart. He felt for the hose.