Sunshine Mine Disaster: A brief history

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Two miners exiting the electric shop in the main haulage way on the 3,700 level of the Sunshine Mine on May 2, 1972, smelled smoke and shouted a warning. Source: Msha.gov

May 2 will mark the 46th anniversary of the 1972 Sunshine Silver Mine fire in Kellogg, when 91 miners lost their lives — a tragedy which still burns in the hearts of the close-knit Silver Valley and mining communities. According to the Bureau of Mines Final Report, two workers smelled smoke near the electric shop in the main haulage way and shouted a warning at 11:40 a.m. Smoke and carbon monoxide rapidly increased where most of the 173 men in the mine were assigned. Mine supervisors, after attempting to locate the fire, ordered an evacuation at 12:03 p.m.; 80 men escaped and only two were rescued. The remaining 91 men died of carbon monoxide poisoning. None of the survivors reported seeing fire or flames. The Bureau of Mines concluded a probable cause was spontaneous combustion of refuse near scrap timber used for backfill, although damage made it impossible to single out any single cause for the large loss of life.

The disaster led to major, industry-wide safety changes, including improvements in escape systems, ventilation systems, and training. Every American miner now carries a “self-rescuer” breathing apparatus. It also led to the creation of what is now the Mine Safety and Health Administration. [For more information see the 1972 Sunshine Mine exhibition at https://arlweb.msha.gov/disaster/disaster.htm]

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