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Pain, anger linger from Wilberg

Some blame greed for Utah mine fire 20 years ago that killed 27

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

Wilberg Mine rescue workers are briefed before entering the mine to search for the trapped miners in December 1984. Twenty-seven miners died.

Deseret Morning News archives

Twenty years ago tonight, an air compressor fire that hardly would have drawn a cuss word above ground ignited a hell on earth in central Utah's Wilberg coal mine — a tragedy that became the worst coal-fire disaster in Utah history.

Twenty-seven miners died.

"Time has not dimmed the pain of losing my son, and it never will," says Sally Walls, whose son Lester Walls Jr., 23, died in the Wilberg Mine. "It's the most devastating thing that can ever happen to a parent. It's been 20 years, but the hurt is still there like it was yesterday. It seems like an eternity since I've seen and talked to my son."

There have been deadlier mine disasters in Utah. Notably, a devastating underground explosion in the Scofield Mine on May 1, 1900, killed 200 miners, but there was no fire involved in that tragedy.

At nearly a mile deep and literally encased in fuel, the Wilberg blaze, reported at 9:20 p.m., Dec. 19, 1984, quickly became so hot that the miners — trapped a half mile deeper — couldn't get out and their would-be rescuers couldn't get in. A long-burning wall of fire and dense smoke delayed recovery of the bodies and kept the remains of the last two miners cordoned off from their loved ones outside until Dec. 16, 1985, nearly a year later.

The fire that December night brought grief to coal-mining communities in Emery and Carbon counties and an outpouring of sympathy from coal mining towns across the country. The long interval between the accident and the recovery of bodies prolonged the agony for survivors. A monument dedicated at the end of 1985 memorialized the loss but didn't extinguish the anger in some of the loved ones left behind.

The 20th anniversary will be observed this afternoon and evening by the United Mine Workers of America and the community at large. UMWA President Cecil Roberts will attend from Washington, D.C., as will Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president of UMWA District 22.

Most of the surviving family members have moved on with their lives and left the area, Dalpiaz said.

Walls would have gone back to her native Pennsylvania after the tragedy had it not been for her younger son's asthma condition. Her husband, Lester Sr., also a Wilberg Mine worker, died seven years ago, and her other three children are married and living in the area with their children, so it's unlikely she'll ever leave, although her son was buried on Nov. 9, 1985 — his 24th birthday — in his native Indiana, Penn.

"I wanted to move back East where I came from when this happened, but my youngest son has asthma, so we couldn't because of his health. That's why I didn't leave here, or I would have," she said.

Her husband worked nearly 24 hours trying to rescue the miners, until Mine Safety and Health Administration officials on site found out his son was inside; then they sent him home, she said.

She visits another bereft mother, now in an area care center, often. But the others — well, they've moved on, she said.

Trying for a record

The events that set in motion the tragedy resulted, Dalpiaz said, from "everything bad just getting there at the same time."

The mine, operated by Emery Mining Co. under contract from Utah Power & Light Co., was working to set a longwall mining record when the fire began.

On the evening of Dec. 19, 28 people — twice the size of the normal crew — were working in the Fifth Right longwall section in pursuit of a 24-hour production record. About 9 p.m. fire broke out in First North, near the entrance to the Fifth Right section. An overheated air compressor was blamed for the fire. Within minutes smoke and lethal gases moved 2,400 feet down Fifth Right to the working face of the longwall.

One miner escaped.

Heroic measures were taken by rescuers, who believed the trapped miners might still be alive. After three days, they entered Fifth Right and located 25 bodies. But before the bodies could be removed, the fire flared up, forcing a retreat and sealing of the mine. The sealed part of the mine was not opened until July 1986, when MSHA began its investigation.

Although it took nearly a year to recover the bodies of the 26 men and one woman, and though a congressional hearing was held to determine the cause, most of the survivors seem to blame the mining company, Utah Power and even the union for worrying so much about setting a record that they turned a blind eye to safety issues.

"They got two world's records — one for production and one for killing the most people," Dalpiaz noted.

"It's on record that my son went to work that day and said it was unsafe to work," Walls said. "When MSHA came in and gave them a variance, there wasn't much they could do."

Lessons learned

Utah Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen said commercial mining never resumed in the Wilberg Mine, partly because of fire damage, so the company developed an adjacent area called Cottonwood to supply coal for its Emery County power plant.

Several changes were made in the way coal mines operated, based on the Wilberg experience, Eskelsen said. Among these:

• Air compressors now are in fireproof concrete boxes; the design of fresh air returns was changed, as have the materials they are made of.

• Wireless communication is now used, so if wires are burned through, as happened early in the Wilberg fire, miners can still communicate with the outside and each other.

• And, "There have been huge advances made in fire suppression, with dedicated water lines and tanks that can operate without outside power," he said.

"The company has paid a lot of attention to emergency response drills and making sure people are trained in the use of self-rescue units. I think the performance of the company since then in terms of its attendance to safety has been stellar. We have won a number of safety awards for underground mines."

After the fire, Utah Power took direct control over the operation of its mines and made great strides in safety procedures, Eskelsen said.

Following a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing into the fire, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, got the General Accounting Office to investigate the conduct of MSHA regarding the mine and fire. The GAO report, released in November 1987, cited MSHA for allowing the mine to operate with an outdated firefighting and evacuation plan, to operate with no fire suppression devices and to run a compressor known to be faulty. MSHA also was cited for allowing the longwall section to operate while a tunnel running off the tailgate of the longwall machine was blocked to human travel by a cave-in.

Remembering

Two monuments stand in Emery County to honor the 27 lost miners. One is outside the county courthouse in Castle Dale, the other, an 8-foot slab of granite bearing the etched figures of a male and female miner and the names of the victims, stands on a hillside overlooking the canyon that leads to the mine.

Walls visits the monument overlooking the canyon several times a year and lays wreaths in memory of her son and the others.

"The other day I took down a Christmas tree and wreath that will stay up until after the holidays," she said.

"Maybe it's so hard to adjust to losing Les because it was out of greed and stupidity, just to make the almighty dollar, just to break a record. If they had cleaned out Six Right, every one of them men would have had a way out of there," she said.

"It will be a difficult Sunday memorial service, but I'll have my three kids and grandchildren with me," said Walls. "It will be nice to see Mr. Roberts and the other men. I haven't seen Mr. Roberts since this happened. He and Mr. (Richard) Trumka came out to the house (at the time) and asked what they could do.

"I said I wanted my son out of that mine. He promised they would do that, and they brought him out on Nov. 6. His birthday was Nov. 9. and I remember going home to bury him in Pennsylvania that day."


E-mail: lweist@desnews.com

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