The miner at the Sunshine Mine Fire Memorial looks over attendees, gathered to pay their respects for the dead on the tragedy’s 45th anniversary.
CHANSE WATSON/Hagadone News Network

By Dick Sheldon
| March 5, 2020 1:12 AM

One hundred seventy-three went into the Silver Valley’s Sunshine Mine on May 2, 1972. One week later, only 87 of them were alive.

The last two survivors were rescued after eight days of entrapment. Death resulted from the fumes which had spread quickly through the miles of tunnels dug deep into the earth.

Smoke appeared at ll:40 a.m. at level 3,700 feet. Two electricians smelled smoke and shouted a warning. A search was initiated but the source of the fire was not found until later. The Bureau of Mines concluded that a “spontaneous combustion” of discarded timber at the site of the fresh air intake was the cause. This explained why the deadly carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide spread so quickly throughout the entire mine. Blinding smoke hindered trapped miners being able to find a route of escape.

What caused the disaster is still contested. The then head of safety for the mine, Robert E. Launhardt, now retired and still living in the Silver Valley wrote, “One man’s failure to share information about the extreme fire hazard of polyurethane foam killed 91 men in the Sunshine Mine fire disaster and 176 men in the Kinross Gold Mine in South Africa in August 1986.”

The mine was the largest hard silver mine in the nation. Located between Kellogg and Wallace, the mine was first opened in 1884. It went 5,600 feet into the earth and had 100 miles of tunnels. At the time, it was deemed to be the richest active silver mine in the U.S., having produced over 360 million ounces of silver.

That morning Wayne L. Johnson left his wife and three daughters to drive from his home in Post Falls to work his shift. When the fire started, the smoke and toxic carbon monoxide fumes spread rapidly. Wayne was evacuated promptly. Hearing that men were still missing and thinking he knew where they could be found, he volunteered to lead a rescue effort back down. He didn’t survive the heroic effort.

The pall of sadness that fell over the entire North Idaho was palpable. People’s lives were affected in many ways. Now retired longtime resident and realtor Joe Threadgill Sr. suspended his busy real estate business for a week while he responded to requests from the English Funeral Home in Coeur d’Alene to sing at three funerals.

The mine was closed down for seven months while extensive investigations were carried on by state and federal agencies. The mine was reopened in December 1972. Production of silver slowly regained its pre-disaster level. In the end the company was forced into bankruptcy.

A magnificent memorial to the miners lost in the disaster can be seen by exiting Interstate 90 at off ramp #54 (Big Creek Road), turning left and proceeding under I-90 to the monument. Then, turn around and head up the canyon about 2 miles to the Sunshine Mine on the left. You can’t miss it.

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Dick Sheldon is a Coeur d’Alene resident.

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*Taken from Bill Withers song “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”

The mission of the Museum of North Idaho (MNI) is to preserve the rich history of North Idaho. Because of its popularity, a book by Gene Hyde titled “From Hell to Heaven: Death Related Mining Accidents in North Idaho” is being reprinted and will be available in the spring. To donate to the MNI’s new museum, send tax deductible donations to P.O. Box 812, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83816-0812 or contact Jim Faucher to discuss larger donations at 208-660-0571. See the museum’s website for ways you can become a valued museum member.