Kymberly Mele recently published Disaster at Cane Creek, a book about the tragic 1963 potash mine explosion near Moab, Utah. A narrative nonfiction, the book details the dramatic events that took place at the new Texas Gulf Sulphur potash mine at the time it was under construction by Harrison International.
Harrison was contracted to sink the 2,798 foot shaft and construct two parallel drifts (mined out passageways) to the potash ore. On August 27, 1963, twenty-four men working the afternoon shift for Harrison and one Texas Gulf Sulphur employee were working underground when a massive explosion rocked the mine site. On the surface, one man working at the top of the shaft was thrown out of the headframe and was treated and rushed to the hospital as officials and workers from both companies assessed the situation and sprang into action. What ensued would be a federal and state mine rescue operation that spanned three days of hard work to get rescuers into the mine and to any survivors if there were any. Unbeknownst to those on the surface was the dramatic events that unfolded underground after the explosion. A crew of eight men working in the 3U drift, the longest drift, survived the explosion. They quickly headed towards the shaft station, the only way out of the deep mine. On their way they met up with two other men. Below is an excerpt from the book detailing a part of this very dramatic story:
Underground, Bob June and Lamar Rushton would have normally been working on the west side, in a connecting drift at the bottom of the raises on the lower level. But today they were assigned to do some special drilling to build a bridge acrossi the larger raise on the upper level.
At the time of the explosion, the concussion knocked both men over and rolled them down the drift. They soon heard a guy screaming down in the large raise for what seemed like a long time.ii At first, the screaming was further away, then came closer to the bottom of the raise. The man was screaming for help.
June and Rushton weren’t quite sure who they heard but one thing they knew: the man was badly hurt from the explosion and needed help. June and Rushton yelled to let him know they were trying to find a rope or something to throw down to him. Desperate, they quickly searched to find something, anything to get to the guy. About this time, they both saw the lights of a shuttle car coming up the incline. They hoped whoever was coming could help.
Once the shuttle car got to the top of the incline, both June and Rushton were waiting near the three-way junction, frantic and upset. They told the other men how they heard a guy down through the raise on the lower level screaming. Agitated, June and Rushton explained how a man was screaming right after the explosion, and they needed help to get to him. The miners piled out of the shuttle car and followed June and Rushton back into the raise area to investigate.iii
No one had a rope, a chain ladder, or anything they could use to get to the injured man. Nevertheless, all the men ran into the raise area out of instinct to check out the situation for themselves.iv They crossed over a lagging, which was a long, 3 to 4 inch thick, foot-wide wood plank laid over the first raise to get from one side to the other. The first of the two large raises was eighteen feet across the entire width of the drift. The second was only half-finished and was about halfway across the drift. Both holes were about ten to twelve feet from one side to the other and 105-feet deep.v At the bottom of each was the lower level that connects through a crosscut drift to the West Drift (2 South). Back at the 3-way junction where the shuttle car stopped was a smaller Manway raise, measuring six feet by six feet. When completed, it would have a ladder or lift installed to take miners between the two levels in the mine.vi
The men yelled down into the raise trying to get a response but heard nothing. Even if the guy screaming were still at the bottom, no one would have been able to get to him. Even if they had a rope, chances were it wouldn’t have been long enough to reach.vii
As the men hastily discussed what they should do next, white smoke started coming up from both of the large raises. The mine was starting to re-vacuum, pulling air back down the shaft and pushing smoke deep into the mine’s passageways, as the environment strained to become normalized.viii
As the smoke came up through the raises, it also started coming at the men from the top end through the crosscutix from the direction of the shaft station. Almost as quickly, the smoke also began to come around at them from the three-way junction just down the drift. The smoke wasn’t moving real fastx but was getting thick and coming in from all around, surrounding the men in the raise area.
The thick white smoke boiled in from all directions, surrounding the ten men.xi “We’ve gotta get out of here,” some of the men yelled. They scrambled to get back over the foot-wide plank, which was about twelve feet across with no railing and smoke coming up out of the raise. One by one they crossed over the lagging. Still able to see enough to get everyone across, the smoke bellowed in on them and quickly became thick.
The men had to go back the way they came, run through the smoke and get ahead of it before it reached the Face.xii
“Get ahead of the smoke,” someone yelled.
“Outrun it,” another said.
A large can of water was on the other side of the raise, and everyone grabbed a rag, anything they could find to wet and put over their face.xiii Already, the men were beginning to cough. The smoke became so thick that they couldn’t even see their hands in front of their face. Unable to see where they were going, the men started yelling directions to each other.
“Get to good air,” came a muffled voice.
“Stay to the left Rib,” another yelled.
They tried to keep track of each other as they went. Some were spread out. Others together.
“Keep going, get ahead of the smoke.”
They hugged the left Rib to maintain their bearings in the smoke and repeated instructions as they groped their way through the thick smoke, making their way back to the junction, trying to account for everyone along the way.xiv
“Stay to the left. Stay to the left Rib,” came muffled instructions through the rags over their faces.
The men knew they had to stay to the left Rib. Ahead, against the right Rib was the small Manway raise at the junction. It was 105-feet deep with no railing and was near the parked shuttle car. The raise area was the worst place in the mine to get caught in smoke. As long as the men stayed to the left, they would be okay, but one wrong step and they could get turned around and fall into one of the raises. Once the men got to the junction, they would have to let go of the Rib and walk across to the other side where they would hit either the left Rib and the large metal vent line next to it or the left front of the shuttle car.
McKinney felt his way along the Rib, when he suddenly hit his shinxv on the small ventilation fan used in the raise area. He remembered the fan sat about six to eight feet from the corner of the junction. He reached out, touched the fan, then the Rib and aligned himself. Going straight about twenty feet across the junction, he estimated he should hit the vent line or the shuttle car parked just over ten feet down from the corner on the other side. Hesitant, McKinney let go and headed straight ahead, the whole time reaching out, arms flailing about, trying to touch something, anything. Surrounded by thick smoke, he had to keep moving as fast as he could. Fearful, he realized he should have reached the other side by now. He worried he had unknowingly got turned around in the smoke.xvi Terrified this might be the case, he cautiously kept going.
Finally, McKinney hit something but couldn’t tell what. Feeling down the side, pointing his cap-lamp, and getting as close as he could, he tried to see through the smoke to determine what he had hit. It was the shuttle car, but not the front left side. He ran into the right corner. The realization hit that he could have easily walked into the Manway raise not far away and fallen a hundred feet below. What McKinney didn’t know was that the small ventilation fan he hit his shin on had recently been moved forty feet up into the raise area. Not knowing this, he let go of the left Rib way too soon. Far away from the junction and disoriented in the smoke, he could have easily walked right into the Manway hole.xvii
As the other men groped through the dense smoke, several others hit the right side of the shuttle car as well. ‘C.C.’ came the closestxviii to falling in the Manway raise. His foot went into the hole and scared him to death; but, he was able to pull his foot out before he lost his balance and plummeted to the bottom.
Coughing, McKinney and the other men nearby felt their way past the shuttle car. Once they got their bearings and lined themselves up with the left Rib, they started down the incline at a dead run. Some of the men were spread out, others together, all were running to get ahead of the smoke. They could hear the coughing as they moved as fast as possible.
About two hundred feet down the incline, the men near McKinney were still running to get out ahead of the smoke. The thick cloud was possibly a mixture of smoke and fog that had formed after the explosion when it stirred up fine salt and shale dust.xix
Each man had their wet rags against their faces while coughing, as tears streamed down their cheeks. They knew they had to build a barricadexx as quickly as possible if they were going to survive. When someone had mentioned building a barricade, they all knew that was what they needed to do. Once they got ahead of the smoke, they just needed enough time to get a barrier built before the smoke overtook them again.
‘Blackie’ knew if a man was going to lose it, it would be in the smoke.xxi Losing one’s bearings and becoming disorientated can cause overwhelming panic and fear.
A typical reaction of this type of fear while in smoke was not unlike one miners’ experience in the Sunnyside, Utah No. 1 mine explosion in 1945.
“A crew of eight miners was coming out of the mine after their shift when the explosion flattened them to the ground and darkened the mine. They all agreed to hang onto each other so no one would get lost or separated from the rest. Without warning, one of the men went berserk. Screaming and kicking, he broke away from the group. His crew finally located him in the blackness, clutched his hand and started onward once more. Again, the man’s frayed nerves gave out. Kicking and yelling, he again dashed off into a side passageway. Once more the crew found him. This time, he was placed in the center of a ring formed by the men and virtually herded out to safety.”xxii
i Westfield, Knill and Moschetti, Final Report of Cane Creek Mine, 17.
ii Robert June, AP, “‘I Heard This Man Screaming…’” Daily Sentinel, August 30, 1963.
iii Donald Blake Hanna, Interview by author, Price, UT, November 24, 1994.
iv Paul McKinney, Interview by Pat McKinney, Armargosa Valley, NV, July 21, 1996.
vii Donald Blake Hanna, Interview by author, Price, UT, November 24, 1994.
ix Westfield, Knill and Moschetti, Final Report of Cane Creek Mine, Appendix H. No. 3 Crosscut.
x Charles “C.C.” Clark, Interview by author, Moab, UT, August 18, 1995.
xi Donald Blake Hanna, Interview by author, Price, UT, November 24, 1994.
xii Charles “C.C.” Clark, Interview by author, Moab, UT, August 18, 1995.
xiii Paul McKinney, Interview by Pat McKinney, Armargosa Valley, NV, July 21, 1996.
xiv Westfield, Knill and Moschetti, Final Report of Cane Creek Mine, 17.
xv Paul McKinney, Interview by Pat McKinney, Armargosa Valley, NV, July 21, 1996.
xviii Charles “C.C.” Clark, Interview by author, Moab, UT, August 18, 1995.
xix Westfield, Knill and Moschetti, Final Report of Cane Creek Mine, 17.
xx Newell, “Moab Miner Relates,” September 5, 1963.
xxii “Berserk Worker Saved Despite Self,” Deseret News, May 10, 1945.
Copyright © 1994 Kymberly Mele
All rights reserved.
To comment, scroll to the bottom of the page.