Weaker dollar and inflation fears rattle Treasury market

Section:

By Nicholas K. Geranois
Associated Press Writer
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Saturday, March 12, 2005

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/aplocal_story.asp?
category=6420&slug=WST%20Mining%20Disaster

SPOKANE, Wash. -- When fire broke out in Idaho's Sunshine Mine in
1972, there was little panic. Miners knew there wasn't much to burn
a mile down a wet mine.

But deadly carbon monoxide killed 91 men in one of the nation's
worst mining accidents.

A new book, "The Deep Dark," provides a gruesome moment-by-moment
account of the disaster that began on May 2, 1972, when unexplained
smoke began pouring out of the mine near Kellogg, Idaho.

Three decades after the fire, author Gregg Olsen found that many
residents of the Silver Valley remain scarred by a tragedy that left
some 200 children without fathers, and prompted big changes in the
nation's mining laws.

"The most difficult thing was talking with the people and crying
with those people as they told me stories they kept inside for 30
years," said Olsen, who lives in Olalla, Wash.

The nation was gripped for a week by efforts to rescue the 93 miners
who were trapped underground by the fire. People didn't realize that
many of the miners dropped dead where they were working as toxic
smoke overcame them almost instantly.

Only two of the 93 men trapped inside the mine made it out alive.
Ron Flory and Tom Wilkinson were 4,000 feet below the surface when
the fire broke out. They went lower, where they found a pocket of
fresh air. They stayed there for a week, suffering from fear and
hunger, before they were found on May 10.

Olsen said the two were basically lucky to stumble into some fresh
air. From nearly the moment they were rescued, Flory and Wilkinson
faced irrational resentment and anger from the families of men who
died, Olsen found.

Flory, 29 at the time of the fire, visisted with Olsen at a recent
book signing in Wallace.

"It's not something I dwell on. I don't have flashbacks. I never
did," Flory told The Spokesman-Review newspaper in brief comments
before leaving.

Flory went back to mining and retired several years ago with a
medical disability. Wilkinson left mining after the fire to work for
the Forest Service, Olsen wrote.

The book at times has a ghoulish quality, with horrifying
descriptions of the oozing bodies of the victims being discovered by
rescuers in the hot, wet mine.

"The bodies had ceased to look like men, their features exaggerated
far beyond the bounds of recognition," he wrote. "Eyes bulged
grotesquely. Teeth seemed to push forward, as if they were wrong
side out. Ears had swollen to twice normal size."

Flesh peeled off bodies as they were lifted by rescuers. Many of the
miners could be identified only by their clothes or the stickers on
their helmets.

For Olsen, the book was a welcome change from his previous volume,
an account of the lurid affair between teacher Mary Kay Letourneau
and her former sixth-grade pupil, Vili Fualaau.

Olsen had long been haunted by the disaster, which is memorialized
by a poignant sculpture near the mine along Interstate 90. When he
began researching the story, he was surprised to find that no
comprehensive account existed. He spent four years interviewing 200
survivors, family members, executives, government regulators and
others, and his book weaves in the story of what was going on at
home while the fire was burning in the mine.

He also attended several anniversary events on May 2.

The Silver Valley, located in Shoshone County, contains a series of
small towns that provided bars for the miners and homes for their
families. The wide-open county had a culture of drinking, gambling,
and whoring, all supported by the good money made in the mines.

They were dangerous jobs. An estimated 1,000 people have died in the
county's silver mines since 1887.

Olsen approached the job like an old-fashioned muckraker. He
believes that disasters that claim ordinary working people are too
quickly forgotten by the outside world.

"There is a bias against blue-collar workers," Olsen said.

He found most people interested in telling their story. He also went
down into the mine.

"It's hot and wet, a little bit like hell," he said. Olsen wrote
about the macho world of the miners, where excessive attention to
safety was considered unmanly. Many miners didn't bother learning
how to use respirators or other safety gear, preferring to spend
their time earning money. Mining safety laws at the time were lax
and rarely enforced.

Bob Launhardt, in charge of safety at the mine, is a somewhat tragic
figure, haunted by the fire.

The cause has never been established, but Launhardt is certain that
insulating foam sprayed in the mine was flammable and created the
extremely toxic smoke. He believes the federal government never
really wanted to know the cause, to avoid lawsuits.

"Clearly, when so many die on your watch, it isn't easy to let go,"
Olsen wrote of Launhardt, who still lives in Pinehurst, Idaho. "Now
in his 70s, he is an old man with perfect posture and piles of
information to prove that what happened so long ago could have been
averted."

The fire led to the abolition of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which was
considered too friendly with mining companies, and led to the
creation of new agencies more concerned with worker safety. Reforms
such as enclosing elevator operators in airtight compartments, so
they would not be disabled by smoke, and requiring miners to carry
personal respirators, were the result of the disaster.

The Sunshine Mine produced more than 350 million ounces of silver
during a history that began in 1884 with the discovery of the Yankee
Lode. The mine operated for decades after the fire but low silver
prices led to its closure in 2001.

Prices have rebounded and the mine is slated to reopen later this
year.

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