Fifty years to the day after one of the worst mining disasters in Utah history, Clark joined two other survivors and dozens of others to remember the victims of the Cane Creek Mine explosion.
The incident at Texas Gulf Sulphur’s potash mine, which was then under construction about 20 miles west of Moab, claimed the lives of 18 miners. Seven men who were on the afternoon shift, including co-speakers Donald “Blake” Hanna and Paul McKinney, survived.
This week, Clark told a packed crowd at the Grand County Public Library that he and his co-workers had descended more than 2,700 feet below the surface that afternoon to work on a roof-bolting project. At about 4:40 p.m., Clark felt a concussive force that pushed his eardrums in and sent reverberations through the ground.
He knew that something was wrong, and his instincts guided him to move as quickly as he could.
He and his co-workers boarded a shuttle car and rode it upward.
They could see the carbon monoxide-laden smoke coming toward them, and as they milled about deciding what they should do, it settled around the group.
Some of them men grabbed scraps of cloth, which they dipped in a bucket of water and then wrapped around their mouths, Clark said.
A group of the miners moved on ahead and hung a curtain from some wire at the top of a tunnel, but Clark said they didn’t do a very good job of sealing it. They kept going beyond that first makeshift barricade, sucking in their diaphragms and clenching their teeth as they traveled through the deadly vapors.
“When you were up there in that smoke, the only thing you could think about was getting a breath of air,” Clark said.
Eventually, they installed another barricade that kept the fumes at bay.
Hanna previously received training to install barricades, and he said he did just about everything he’d been taught not to do.
“I had no choice,” he said.
In the meantime, Clark said, his group could hear other survivors of the blast coughing and choking on the smoke behind them.
Hanna said he tried everything he could to save the men, yet three of them refused to join him. McKinney was the last man he asked, and the two of them made it to temporary safety.
“We had our guardian angels with us,” Hanna said.
His greatest sorrow, however, is the memory of the men who survived the blast, yet stayed where they were.
Hanna said he argued with one of the men, but he wouldn’t budge.
“He would not have anything to do with it,” Hanna said.
It turned out that the air behind the barricade was breathable, and the seven remaining men reached the consensus that they should stay in place. But they also knew that the air line was busted, and that someone had to fix it.
The men tried to rest for a while, but conditions inside the barricaded area were challenging.
By McKinney’s estimates, temperatures after the explosion soared to somewhere between 132 to 138 degrees Fahrenheit.
At first, they divided roughly five gallons of water from a bucket seven ways. Their only other source of water came from a two-inch pipe.
McKinney said that water was as black as coffee, and he feared that they might die of ptomaine poisoning if they drank it. But ultimately, they overcame those fears out of desperation.
“We drank it because we had to drink it,” McKinney said.
Some time passed before McKinney and Hanna set off to repair the air line.
Neither man was in good shape by the time they were done.
McKinney was injured when his battery leaked acid on to him, and Hanna was temporarily blinded as he worked on the pipes.
Once they repaired the damages, they were thoroughly exhausted. But they kept going, and eventually, they spotted a rescue crew that had descended to fix an air vent.
They were the first of the survivors to reach the surface at around noon on Aug. 28, 1963.
Meanwhile, Clark and four other men, including Charles Byrge, Grant “Blackie” Eslick, Robert June and Matt Rauhala, milled around inside the barricaded area.
As they waited, Clark’s thoughts often turned to his family.
Clark said he kept thinking that someone would show up to rescue them.
After a number of false starts, they did.
By that time, almost 50 hours had passed.
Hanna said the entire ordeal was especially hard on the miners’ family members, who waited for news of their husbands and fathers.
“The families were kept in the dark, and they didn’t tell them anything,” he said.
But in the old days, that was a common scene, Hanna said. Women and children – most of them immigrants – would kneel in the mud, wailing and whimpering at the site of any mining disaster.
“That’s the way it was,” Hanna said.
While the miners were used to conditions below the surface, Hanna said that members of the rescue crew must have been genuinely terrified by the things they witnessed.
“I don’t know how they’d done it,” Hanna said. “It was a completely impossible situation.”
It may have been a preventable one, though.
Both Hanna and McKinney said they’d previously registered complaints about conditions at the mine.
“This probably never should have happened had the state mine inspectors done what they should have done,” McKinney said.
Hanna, who went on to became a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspector, agreed.
“They had nobody really to inspect the mines,” he said.
Underground mining operations at Cane Creek ceased in 1971, and today, new owner Intrepid Potash recovers its products through solution mining and solar evaporation.
“We’re mining now, but it’s a different kind of mining,” said Rick York, general manager for Intrepid Potash’s Moab Mine.
Like many others who attended this week’s memorial, York has a personal connection to the tragedy. His wife’s uncle served with the rescue team.
“It’s one of those small town things, and in the mining community, everyone helps each other,” York said.
For more information about the Cane Creek Mine disaster, go to: http://cane-creek-mine-disaster.blogspot.com/.
The website was created by Hanna’s daughter, Kymberly Mele, who also organized the memorial.
Cane Creek Mine victims remembered
On Tuesday, Aug. 27, family members and loved ones also paid tribute to the 18 men who were killed in the 1963 Cane Creek Mine explosion:
Wesley J. Barber
Robert Wayne Bobo
Myrlen H. Christensen, Jr.
Myrlen H. Christensen, Sr.
Lawrence I. Davidson
Jesse E. Fox
James N. Hollinger
Jesse C. Kassler
Emile J. LeBlanc
Fred D. Rowley
Joseph Rene Roy
Lamar C. Rushton
John P. Tinall