PRICE — Joe Piccolo, full-time mechanic and part-time mayor, sits in his City Hall office in the middle of the afternoon to give an out-of-town reporter a diagnostic update on how his town is running nine months after the Crandall Canyon mine tragedy.

He rests easily in the chair the taxpayers bought. There's a grease smudge on his shirt and a tire gauge in his pocket next to his pens. Just as Rudy Giuliani fit New York City, Joe Piccolo fits Price, domain of the working man and hub of Utah's coal country.

Piccolo would have no doubt been a coal miner himself if it hadn't been for a cave-in on April 25, 1957, that took the life of the father who was his namesake.

The roof collapsed that day on the Bear Canyon mine, killing Joe's dad and two other miners who were working the same seam of coal, as fate would have it, that miners were working in nearby Crandall Canyon last August when their roof collapsed, killing six and three more who tried to save them.

As Mayor Joe Piccolo jumped in his car and raced from Price to the Crandall Canyon tragedy last summer, 50 years disappeared just like that.

When he saw the siren atop the school in Huntington where anxious families awaited word, he was 6 years old again, clutching his mother's hand.

When the mine superintendent waded among the tense crowd to announce, "Will the following people come with me," he remembered a time when another mine superintendent said those same words.

"I would have been a miner, I'm sure of it," he says, "if not for that."

He became a mechanic instead, and in 2001 he ran for mayor — and won.

No one could have understood any better what coal country was feeling last August, or been better prepared to know what needed to be done.

"As mayor, when things turn south, your primary job is to lead the way back," says Piccolo. "I knew that. I felt I was prepared to know that. We needed to come together as a community and help everyone get back on their feet.

"My mother was 42 years old, in the prime of her life, when my father died," he reminisces, "and the whole community got together and helped her ...

" ... just like this community has come together now."

The mayor doesn't try to sugarcoat the situation. He acknowledges that Crandall Canyon was "a tornado in the side of the ship" as far as Carbon and neighboring Emery Counties are concerned. The economy was booming last summer, optimism was high and then the roof fell in. In addition to the loss of nine lives, Crandall Canyon started a chain reaction that shut down 2 1/2 coal mines and put 400 miners out of work.

Unemployment is up. Per capita income is down.

"Our community has been hurt," says Piccolo, who then quickly adds, "But from the most devastating things, positive things can come. And it's been like a shot of adrenaline to see what people will do to help."

As one example, he cites the time his wife, Barbara, walked through a crowd prior to a benefit auction selling some simple beads on a white ribbon. A ribbon of hope, she called it. "She raised $7,000 in 1 1/2 hours," says Piccolo, amazement still in his voice. "And that money came out of empty pockets."

"I can't tell you the exact amount of what people have contributed," he says — partly this is because he doesn't want to disclose some confidences and partly because no one kept score — "but I can tell you it's an extraordinary amount. The effort to help is something you wouldn't believe if you didn't see it.

"The rain that fell from this storm did not fall on unfamiliar territory," Piccolo concludes. "We've weathered storms before and we will weather this one. Tragedy doesn't test the character as much as it shines on whether it needs improvement. I'm just grateful for the people who live in these two counties."

So that's the mayor's report. Now, if you'll excuse him, he's got work to do.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.