On May 2, 1972, the Sunshine Mine experienced a devastating fire. Claiming the lives of seventy-one men, the Sunshine Mine Disaster is considered one of the worst mining disasters in Idaho’s history.
The fire at the Sunshine Mine, a silver mine near Kellogg, Idaho, was first reported at about 11:40 pm after an electrician smelled smoke and warned the foreman. The foreman telephoned down to the mechanics, who were in a work room, and asked them to see where the fire was burning. When they decided to head to another tunnel to search, they found it so filled with smoke they could not enter; when they moved toward an adjacent tunnel, they found it was also filled with smoke. Simultaneously, the shaft foremen requested had the warning system activated, alerting miners to the presence of gas, and sent oxygen masks into the mine. Most of the men became aware of the fire when the smoke entered their workplaces, which they retreated from by moving toward another part of the shaft. There, miners hoisted men up to the surface. This continued until about 1:00 PM when the miner manning the lift was overcome by gas and smoke. Men on the lower levels were stuck, and while many tried to make it to where men were being hoisted to the surface or at least barricade themselves against the gas, most died from carbon monoxide exposure.
While the surviving miners and surface workers mounted their own rescues, they also called in trained rescue teams. In order to reach the bottom of the mine, rescuers and workers needed to use mine hoists to travel up and down the shafts, and that required repairing the electical system. However, with so much gas and smoke, the crew could work only for as long as their oxygen tanks lasted, about two hours at a time. With so little time, rescuers chose to focus on finding survivors rather than removing the bodies, and they forced themselves to walk past and over the bodies of asphyxiated miners every time they made the trip to the repair site. In total, eighty escaped the mine, only two survived the disaster while inside the mine, and ninety-one died.
The exact reason and location for the fire is unknown. Because the fire damaged walls and support beams, the mine partially collapsed, burying areas that might have provided clues. The Sunshine Mine’s high profile fire significantly impacted discourse surrounding the safety of hard rock mining. This disaster prompted Congress to pass the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, improving safety standards for hard rock mining. For example, the act required mines to provide more ventilation and to create plans for guiding surface workers’ response in the event of another disaster. The act also stipulated mandatory disaster training so all miners knew what to do and where to go in an emergency, and it required miners have personal oxygen tanks with them at all times. Overall, the act created a safer work environment to help prevent similar disasters in the future.