Wilberg disaster helped shape perceptions of new mine safety chief

Mine fire » 27 coal miners died 25 years ago today
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Of all the mine disasters he has responded to, none affected new Mine Safety and Health Administration director Joe Main more than Wilberg.

So much death, with 27 miners perishing in the fire that erupted 25 years ago tonight in the Utah Power & Light coal mine near Orangeville in Emery County.

So much grief, with families waiting nearly a year for their loved ones to be removed from the mine, which was abandoned Dec. 23 after the threat of a violent explosion ended the recovery effort. Rescuers ran for their lives, seeking safety outside Wilberg's smoke-clogged tunnels.

"It was an event that scorched into your mind a lot of unpleasant thoughts," said Main, who then was safety director for the United Mine Workers of America union. "The agony, the longevity of the whole event, the frustration of spending so much time and accomplishing nothing."

From meeting often with victims' families during two years of investigating the disaster, Main also learned "what the impact really is from the failure to maintain safety in the mine. For those of us there in the rescue/recovery operations, over time our pain and thinking about the event fades. But it never does for those families."

Families such as the Walls, whose 23-year-old son, Lester Jr., died that horrible night of Dec. 19, 1984.

"I wouldn't wish this type of thing onto anybody," Lester's mom, Sally, said last week on a day when she completed a Christmas wreath for the union's monument to Wilberg victims and made preparations for commemorative ceremonies this afternoon and evening in Emery County.

"It's the most devastating thing that can ever happen to a family, to a parent, to lose a child, no matter how old that child is. It's something that never goes away. It never gets any better. The hurt is always there, just like it was the day it happened. And that will never change."

Main got to know Sally's late husband, Lester Sr., during the post-disaster effort to determine what went wrong at Wilberg. He shared several meals with the family at its Huntington home.

That home is still decorated with items that bring to mind Lessie, as Sally calls her son to distinguish him from his dad. Memorabilia of Elvis Presley, his hero, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, his football team. Pictures of Lessie hunting in the desert. Family photos taken in later years, Lessie and his dad digitally inserted into the gatherings. A shelf on a front-room wall with the hard hat he wore and the lunch bucket he took to work the day he died.

It's hard for her to believe a quarter century has passed since that day. Main, too. Just as older people never forget what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he vividly recalls being awakened by a 5 a.m. telephone call at a hotel in Indiana, where he had participated in a mine safety meeting.

"The caller said there's a mine fire, and all these people are missing. You can't comprehend that kind of accident when you first hear of it."

By the time Main took the call, the 27 miners were already dead -- not that anyone was willing to admit that until all hope was gone.

The fire had broken out about 9 the previous night, at the mouth of the section where the crew of a voracious longwall mining machine was trying to set a 24-hour production record. Their ranks were bolstered by extra support workers and much of the mining company's upper management, there to monitor and cheerlead the effort.

The mine's ventilation system quickly carried smoke and deadly carbon monoxide up the only two tunnels that accessed the section. Of the 28 people who were there, only mechanic Kenny Blake miraculously managed to find his way out through blinding smoke.

A mine rescue team found Lessie's body among a group of five near the mining machine. Twenty-five victims were located before a sudden buildup of explosive gases forced an evacuation of the mine so rapid that the bodies had to be left behind. It took 11 months to get back into the section to get them, and another month after that to find the last two missing men.

That was a torturous time, Sally said. She remembers telling one official, "I want my boy out of that mine. I don't care if you have to start from the top of the mountain and dig with a teaspoon. I want my son out of there. ... I don't know what I would have done if they had left them in there. I don't think I could have taken it."

Main had first met Lester Walls Sr. during the rescue effort, when Walls serviced gear for the mine rescue teams that made daring forays behind the fire looking for survivors. The men became better acquainted as Main practically moved to Utah to lead the union's disaster investigation.

"We almost lived together for two months," said Helper-based Mike Dalpiaz, Utah's top mine workers union official.

"Joe is one of the most thorough, conscientious people I've ever dealt with. ... He lived it, ate it, breathed it, seven days a week," Dalpiaz said.

That dedication provided some solace to the Walls family, one of 19 union families involved in the tragedy.

"I trusted the union more than anybody else up there," said Sally, who blames the MSHA district office in Denver for bad plan-approval decisions that led to the disaster. "There was a lot of things about this mine that [MSHA] told us that I did never believe -- and to this day I don't believe.

"Now with Joe Main going into MSHA, I think things will be a lot different," she added.

MSHA's investigation concluded that an air compressor with two defective safety devices had been turned on accidentally and eventually burst into flames, igniting the inferno.

Main's report expressed doubt about that theory, saying a location along a conveyor belt was more likely the flashpoint. But most of all, he stressed, "the source of the fire was not the cause of the deaths of the miners ... it was the failure to provide escape routes that were safely ventilated. ... The mining system was designed -- and allowed to operate -- without prior thought to the need for emergency escapeways."

The union and MSHA reports did agree that multiple breakdowns of safety precautions came together to doom the Wilberg miners, a consensus that led to several valuable advancements in mine-safety practices.

"The miners who died at Wilberg did not die in vain," said Main, citing the development of standards limiting where mining can take place with only two access tunnels, improved fire suppression systems, changes to ventilation and roof control principles, and increased attention to mine-emergency responses.

"The practice of mock emergencies took off like wildfire," he noted, recalling the chaos prevalent at Wilberg. "You have to be prepared. There's nothing like being prepared."

But nothing can really ever prepare one for mass death -- and Main never wants to deal with that again, not the way he did here in Utah.

"I still think about Wilberg a lot. It crosses my mind for different reasons. But for the families and the co-workers, it never leaves. It's a scar they're left with for life. I have a better appreciation for that, for the collateral damage of these catastrophic accidents."


A night in hell

Shortly after 9 p.m. on Dec. 19, 1984, a fire broke out in Emery County's Wilberg mine. It quickly became an inferno. Only one of the 28 coal miners in the 5th Right section was able to escape, triggering a valiant, three-day rescue effort that found only death. It took almost a year to get all of the bodies out of the smoldering mine. Wilberg remains the worst U.S. coal mine disaster of the past quarter century.


Dec. 19, 1984 Wilberg inferno

A fire broke out in Emery County's Wilberg mine, quickly becoming an inferno. Only one of the 28 coal miners inside was able to escape. It took almost a year to get all the bodies out of the smoldering mine. Wilberg remains the worst U.S. coal mine disaster of the past quarter century.

In remembrance

The 25th anniversary of the Wilberg mine disaster will be commemorated with a ceremony at 4 p.m. today at a monument erected by the United Mine Workers of America along Utah Highway 57 outside of Orangeville. Also, a program will be held at 5:30 p.m. at Emery High School.