Book Review: ‘A Darkness Lit By Heroes’ by Doug Ammons

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The late 1800s witnessed the development of the telegraph, telephone, electric lighting and power, all creating a world-wide demand for copper. Prospectors discovered huge amounts of copper ore around Butte, Montana, and its mines flourished. Among the largest were those grouped around the Speculator, interconnected by a maze of tunnels and shafts reaching a depth of 3,700 feet below ground. This is the story (based on fact) of the Speculator Mine Fire of 1917, where 168 men died and 214 escaped.

Older readers of this review in Idaho will remember the Sunshine Mine fire here in 1972, where 91 died, most of them suddenly of carbon monoxide, with a comparable proportion of survivors finding their way out. Imagine a disaster twice that size, without much of the modern survival equipment.

Author Doug Ammons does a detailed description of the the rescue operations, but his most remarkable achievement is his ability to describe the feelings and behavior of the people involved.

The story begins with a meeting of mine supervisors and shift bosses. The Speculator is one of the best producers in Montana, but has reached a point where the heat and the air is terrible down below. A new ventilator system will be installed; the new electric cable, a half mile long totaling five tons weight will be passed down the shaft today for connection to the call-bell system controlling traffic up and down the shaft. An experienced crew supervises this, but the cable begins gradually slipping out of control, then collapses in a tangled mess, with its insulation catching fire. Clouds of smoke billow up the shaft and into the surrounding mine workings, rapidly making the air unbreathable.

Many crew bosses are able to lead their men to safety through connections to adjacent mines. Those too close to the Speculator shaft are found dead when rescue teams go in. To increase chances of survival, managers reverse the large ventilation fan above ground and seal off nearby shafts, directing fresh air downward and toward the uncovered Speculator shaft, making it a chimney for the poisonous air to escape, and driving fresh air down to surrounding tunnels where miners are still escaping. Sadly, it is too late for some men.

Crowds of families and friends wait to identify the rows of corpses laid out in sheds serving as temporary morgues. Most are unidentifiable. Only one, out of thirty five the first day. Next day the mayor orders immediate burial in a mass grave, for public health reasons.

The coroner objects. “You can’t steal the bodies from their families! Can’t you even summon a minister? People are asking, ‘Where is God in all this?’”

“All will be buried immediately. The police will enforce my order.”

“You can’t …” yelled the coroner, and balled up his fists and stepped into the mayor’s face, but a policeman put his hand between them.

They stared at each other until the mayor said softly to the coroner, Mr. Lane, God is in the courage and sacrifice of the rescuers and those helping. It’s all we can do.”

The rescue of two groups of miners two days later who each worked on the 2400 level is fascinating but confusing, with variation in the maps’ perspective and shiftinng back and forth between those still trapped. Some stay alive by building an airtight bulkhead to shelter them from the toxic gas. One group, hoping to contact help on nearby levels above, climbs two hundred feet up a manway ladder to the next major level before building shelter. The men seal off small gaps by nailing pieces of clothing across them. (The rock temperature at that level is 100 degrees, so no problem with cold.)

Tom LaMartine, one of the rescue team, wears a Draeger oxygen helmet, knows the territory on levels 2200 and 2400, and had made five trips down on day two with no sign of the 60-or-so men he knew worked there. Abandoned tools and timbers lay about, but two shifter’s crews hadn’t turned up above ground. He was exhausted but couldn’t sleep that night; went back early next morning and consulted the maps with the mine superintendent. “There’s a bulwark there,” pointing to a small side tunnel. I saw it yesterday — put my hands on it. If it’s not on this map, then it’s just been built, and my own tracks are the only ones in the soot on this side of it. He and the super went down; Tom took an abandoned axe. The air was safe now. He smashed one of the boards. From inside the barrier came a clear, firm voice, “Hello out there.” Ten men including their shift boss are inside, some of them near death. A similar group of 15 men are found the same day. LaMartine is celebrated in the newspapers for his persistence in searching.

Author Doug Ammons presents many brief cameos of people in the crowd, wives waiting for news of their men underground. A young newsboy on the street, too short to read the latest postings on the bulletin board of survivors, who is lifted up by someone in the crowd, only to find his Pa’s name among those still missing. The superintendent who saved some of the miners, but who dies believing that he himself is responsible for starting the fire. The young immigrant from Croatia, on his first day in the mine, and many others.

The reader is left with a sense of awe at the magnitude of underground mining, and respect for the men who work there.

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