Don Capparelli, emotional at times, addresses the crowd during the memorial ceremony for the 51st anniversary of the Sunshine Mine Disaster. Capparelli was a miner at the Sunshine during the time of the fire, but had traded shifts and was not at the mine that day. He joined the rescue efforts in the days that followed.
JOSH McDONALD/SHOSHONE NEWS PRESS
Country singer Ron Thompson delivers a stirring rendition of 'Victory in Jesus' to the crowd during the memorial ceremony for the 51st anniversary of the Sunshine Mine Disaster.
Hagadone News Network | May 15, 2023 1:30 AM
BIG CREEK, Idaho – The morning of Tuesday, May 2 marked the 51st anniversary of the disaster that claimed 91 lives at the Sunshine Mine in Silver Valley, Idaho.
Hundreds of people, including those in the mining community, students, and family members made their way to the memorial statue at the bottom of Big Creek to celebrate, remember, and mourn those lives lost.
With the air of grief still lingering over the Silver Valley’s mining community from the death of 26-year-old Blaik Nutting just 21 days prior, that Tuesday was a somber reminder that even with the advances in technology and safety, accidents can and do still happen - and that the most important thing that comes out of the mine each day is the miner.
Each year the ceremony begins at 11 a.m. – not because that is a convenient time to have it – but because that is about the same time that events below ground forever changed the world for so many people above.
Around 11:40 a.m. on May 2, 1972, two electricians on the 3700 level of the Sunshine Mine noticed the unwelcome smell of smoke wafting down the drift past their shop.
Immediate rescue efforts were slow as the smoke was being circulated throughout the mine due to the fire's proximity to the fresh air intake system.
At 1:02 p.m. the Number 10 Hoist was no longer able to be operated safely.
173 men went into the mine that morning, 80 were safely evacuated, and of the 93 miners who remained trapped, 91 perished.
Tuesday’s memorial ceremony was similar to many that have preceded - a solemn prayer, music from country artist Ron Thompson, the reading of the names of the miners who perished in the disaster as well as those who have lost their lives in the industry since that fateful day, and a message.
But this year’s message was different.
Last year, the pomp and circumstance of the tragedy’s 50th anniversary loomed large as Idaho Gov. Brad Little delivered a brief oration in front of a massive crowd.
This year, the message focused on not forgetting about the disaster or its still-felt ripple effects throughout Shoshone County.
“Mining is our heritage here in Idaho, especially in the Silver Valley,” DeAnn Hei said.
Hei has been meeting with the students at Kellogg High School for the past two years, recounting the events that changed her life 50 years ago.
One of the main points she touches on is how the community unified in the days after the disaster.
KHS teacher Hollie Yrjana has helped to make sure the students she teaches every day understand the impact of the tragedy and that they become stewards of its remembrance.
“We have been working with the committee to pass on the responsibility of the memorial,” Yrjana said. “We want to make sure that the story doesn’t fade with time.”
Also speaking was Don Capparelli – who worked at the Sunshine Mine when the fire happened, but wasn’t there when it occurred.
Instead, he participated in the rescue efforts in the hours and days that followed.
Capparelli, emotional at times, talked about how he traded shifts that day and said he doesn't know if he would still be here today if that hadn't been the case.
He acknowledged members of the crowd who lost relatives in mining accidents, whether they were part of the Sunshine Mine Disaster or if they were part of other tragic accidents.
Capparelli pivoted then to discuss how the events of May 2, 1972, didn’t change everything in a negative way.
“The Sunshine Mine Fire has saved thousands and thousands of lives,” Capparelli said. “All because of the changes to mine safety that came after it.”
The fire prompted the requirement that miners carry with them self-saving equipment at all times, it helped with the development of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the understanding of what materials were and were not safe to be used in such a fragile setting.
Even through all of the emotion – Capparelli found a silver lining.
“I’m glad today was a beautiful day,” he said as he looked toward the blue skies.
As the ceremony wrapped up, the name of each of the fallen miners was read aloud, followed by the extinguishing of a headlamp by a Kellogg High School student.