The Wilberg Coal Mine Fire and Tragedy
“Our Secrets Belong To Us”
In the winter of 1984, 28 experienced miners went to work in an underground coal mine just outside of Orangeville, Utah. They dreamed of setting a “long wall” coal production world record at the Wilberg Mine. This championship endeavor would be rewarded with, a steak dinner for two, a $100 bonus and quality jackets emblazoned with the production record.
Instead, on December 19th, 1984 those miners set a modern record in the United States for deaths underground. Before the Wilberg Mine fire, I witnessed gross negligence and safety violations under the umbrella of Emery Mining Corporation (EMC), the employer and operator. Today those still responsible for the tragedy have still not been brought to justice.
A few days after the fire in 1984, on December 23rd, we in the mining community watched TV for any news about the fate of our friends and loved ones. A zealous media vulture who interviewed the wife of one of the trapped miners shoved the microphone in the face of the four year-old boy on his mother’s lap. The reporter purred, “What do you want for Christmas?” Tears streamed down the wife’s face as she valiantly tried to maintain her composure.
The boy, puzzled by his mother’s crying, reached out with the faith of the truly innocent and young. “Daddy’s coming home,” he said. “He’s bringing presents.” He looked up at his mother as if to say, “It’s going to be OK Mommy.”
Daddy didn’t come home. He did not bring presents. The jacket, dinner, and promised $100 went unclaimed. On December 29th, 1984 the mine was sealed, the miners entombed. Eleven months later, recovery operations removed the bodies of 27 miners who had died for a few bucks and a dinner.
Some writers argued that MSHA failed to penalize the management company for safety violations. A union activist rag, The Militant, threw the blame for the fire on mine management. Both sides presented incomplete information. MSHA, the UMWA, the underground workers, and the State of Utah have the information of the real cause of the fire. From then until now these agencies, officials, and individuals have deliberately suppressed the truth. At first I remained silent because of threats against me and my family. With the happenings of life, I have learned how shallow those threats were. (I learned the law, became an attorney.)
Back in the 1980s, my local religious (LDS) leader worked for Emery Mining Corporation and was on my crew. Although he was a staunch Mormon, he regularly drank coffee, viewed porn, and used foul language underground. He defended his position, “Christ can’t see underground so it doesn’t matter what we do. Our secrets belong to us.” This attitude was common and pervasive throughout the work force. What happens underground stays underground.
I’d already been laid off by the EMC but on the evening of February 18th, 1985, I gave information to MSHA investigators exploring possible causes of the fire, information from months before the tragedy that fateful day. That critical information showed fundamental safety flaws in the EMC mining operations; flaws that showed MSHA and the State of Utah were ultimately complicit in the true causes of that fire. I’d dared to bring the darkness of the underground mine into the light of day. My documentation exposed MSHA’s involvement in the Wilberg deaths. But I’d broken the unwritten rule.
The MSHA investigators told me my information was not relevant to the fire – I did not work at the Wilberg Mine nor for EMC. I countered that the information was relevant to the unlawful practices of Emery Mining Corporation, MSHA, UMWA, and the State of Utah. One of the investigators poked me in the chest emphasizing, “If you make that information public, we will see you put in prison for at least five years!”
Even though UMWA Local #22 through its president Mike Dalpiaz, and the State of Utah Industrial Commission had the information I had given to MSHA, not a whisper of that information made it to the congressional inquiry about the causes of the Wilberg Mine Fire, nor into the hands of the public.
“MSHA the Protector” continues to investigate after-the-fact causes of coal mine fires, with a dismal record of hundreds, perhaps even over a thousand additional deaths since the Wilberg Tragedy.
From earlier research, some of the listings closer in time to the Wilberg Disaster, other mine fires, explosions, and cave-ins have included the Sago tragedy (2006 – 12 dead); Walter #5 Mine tragedy (2001 – 13 dead); the William Station tragedy (1989 – 10 dead); and the Crandall Canyon, Utah tragedy (Aug. 2007 – 7 dead). Each has kept its own secrets until now.
MSHA’s best guess as to the cause of the Wilberg fire was that a faulty compressor ignited the blaze. But I knew the compressor, if it started the fire, was only a symptom of a much deeper problem.
After less than 3 months working for EMC, I saw my first underground fire. A couple of months later, I saw my second fire. Shortly thereafter I saw a small explosion around the head of the continuous mining machine. All went unreported.
EMC allowed people who were not lawfully certified nor qualified to do electrical work. The State of Utah and MSHA did nothing to stop EMC from working these people. EMC also had unqualified fire-bosses who checked the mine for safety on a regular basis.
The real cause of the fire was not a faulty compressor. Safety laws were ignored or broken intentionally to increase production on a daily basis. I witnessed these breaches in safety almost every day I worked underground.
Whenever a mining tragedy occurs MSHA conducts an investigation. . During and after the investigation the out cry is something like, “Why did this happen?” “What is the truth?” This outcry continues from the Crandall Canyon Tragedy in Utah through today.
After reading congressional testimonial transcripts concerning the Wilberg Fire, I am convinced the public will never know the truth as long as agencies like MSHA are allowed to conduct their own investigations into their responsibilities for causing these deaths.
As more miners pay the ultimate price, will we allow unsafe conditions to be explained away by investigators hiding the truth, whether federal, state, local, the company, or the unions? New laws will not address the fundamental problem. An impartial investigative body with enforcement power to hold mining operations and MSHA criminally accountable for their failures might prevent any more miners from dying just to win bragging rights and an embroidered jacket. As the another anniversary of the Wilberg Mine fire approaches, I speak out for those who cannot.