Facebook Twitter

WILBERG: MORNING COMES TO EMERY

SHARE WILBERG: MORNING COMES TO EMERY

The world watched when night came to Emery County.

When word of fire in the Wil-berg Mine shattered the night of Dec. 19, 1984, national media flocked to Emery. Their cameras recorded the four-day vigil at the mine office, capturing the fear on wives' faces and the bewilderment in children's eyes as families waited for word of 27 miners - husbands, fathers, a wife - trapped by the fire.Via satellite and microwave, the world witnessed the anguish of those dark December days as mine rescue workers discovered one body after another in the maze of smoky tunnels.

It paused to mark that bleak Christmas, then turned its eyes to other tragedies.

The world wasn't looking when light crept into lives blackened by the fire. It didn't notice when tears dried and souls grew strong. To see the lives of the Wilberg families now is like watching a landscape, long shrouded in night, slowly lit by dawn.

Morning has come to Emery.

Its light is reflected in Elizabeth Robinson Fillmore's face, radiant with the glow of pregnancy. Its vitality surges through Janice Carter-Potts voice when she talks about her college classes. Its sunshine plays in Brandon Ledger's hair as he romps in the driveway under the watchful eye of his new mother, Joy Bertuzzi Ledger.

Elizabeth was 25 when her husband, Lynn Robinson, died in the mine. Their oldest child was 4, their youngest was 18 months. Jim and Joy Bertuzzi's children were 14, 12 and 5 when he died. Janice Carter dropped out of high school to get married at 16. Curtis Carter's death left her alone for the first time in her life, raising four children. The oldest was 11; the youngest 5.

Each woman's trek to happiness was as unique as her personality.

The first year was hell. Their husbands' bodies were sealed in the burning mine, and Wilberg was on the news daily. "You couldn't turn on a radio without hearing about it, and each time it was like a knife twisting in my stomach," Elizabeth said.

"I was sure I would never feel good again. I was so lethargic. I was just going through the motions. You get up. You feed your kids. None of them were in school yet, and it was so overwhelming to have three preschoolers at home all alone."

Elizabeth's sister, Tanie, was her strongest lifeline. Six months after Lynn's death, Tanie dragged a listless Elizabeth to Europe. It was during that trip that Elizabeth discovered she could enjoy herself again.

She also discovered an appetite for travel and an affinity for people of other cultures. The trip to Europe was just the beginning. She took a Spanish class and traveled repeatedly to South America and Mexico.

And she found out who she was. "I was never my own person. I never had any friends. Lynn was my best friend. I didn't need anyone else. But when you lose your best friend, what do you do?"

The first two years, she played the piano for hours. That first Christmas, she and Tanie took her children to Sea World because she couldn't bear to spend the holiday at home.

The third year she lost 85 pounds and struggled to help her son, Jacob, deal with delayed grief. "He had just turned 8 when he started having so many problems - depression and crying. I think it was that all the other kids' daddies were baptizing them (into the LDS Church). It really hit him then that he didn't have a daddy."

Jacob is one of 13 Wilberg children treated for emotional problems by one hospital alone.

The fourth year she met Carl Fillmore. Ironically, it was Elizabeth's newfound independence that attracted the quiet farmer. "Most people around here are just looking for somebody to take care of them and that's that," she said.

Elizabeth had already learned to take care of herself. Carl liked that, he later told her. Elizabeth fell in love, lost 40 more pounds and married Carl.

Her Christmas this year contrasts sharply with that tragic holiday five years ago. She is slimmer than she has been since high school. She and Carl are moving into the farmhouse they spent a year remodeling. They are expecting a baby in June, an event Carl and the children "are in seventh heaven" over, Elizabeth said.

"I'm extremely happy. I've decided that I'm an OK person. Before I had really low self-esteem. But I'm OK! I never felt like that before. I would never want to go through something like that again, but if I had to do it, I could live through it."

Surprisingly, the $22 million settlement Utah Power & Light Co. reached with the 27 families brought unexpected stress. "When you figure that the settlement was $22 million and the attorneys got their third of it, and the other $15 million was divided among 27 families and paid over 50 years - what money? It's enough to live on, but that's all."

Yet news of the settlement sparked hostility and audacity.

"I would have people say to me, `How come it was your husband that died and not my son of a b----.' As if it were something to envy," Joy said.

"I would have people I didn't even know call me up and ask me for a loan," Elizabeth said.

The settlement has paid for Janice Carter-Pott's schooling. She has just completed her first quarter as a full-time student at the College of Eastern Utah. Janice never planned to go to college.

"I didn't see it in my future. I was happy the way I was."

Then Curtis died. For the first several years, she did odd jobs. "I wrapped meat and worked in a grocery store."

And she, too, fell in love. "He was a friend of my husband's. We were always good friends. It's easier to fall in love with someone you know than someone you meet out of the blue."

They waited two years before marrying. "I didn't want to marry. Why take a chance? The first time, I felt like 12 years of my life went down the drain. When you get married when you are 16, and all of a sudden they are gone after you sort of grew up with them, it's hard to handle."

Her decision to go to college was happenstance. Her girlfriend was going, so she went along.

She signed up for 16 credit hours and discovered that she loves to learn. "My kids think I'm a nerd because I study all the time."

She decided to seek a degree in nursing. "I want to be a midwife or a surgical nurse. I like blood and guts. I have delivered animals. I have even sewed up my daughter's head."

Like Elizabeth, she found strength she never suspected she had. "I've learned that I'm my own person and I don't have to take no s--- from nobody."

Joy Bertuzzi Ledger married a neighbor who became her best friend during the early months of mourning the death of her husband. She struggled with that decision to marry. It was almost as tough as losing Jim, she said. "It's hard letting go of one guy and realizing you are going to be someone else's wife. You want to be his wife, not someone else's."

Her marriage to Mike Ledger has brought peace, stability and 3-year-old Brandon into Joy's life. The boy's own mother died shortly after he was born.

Janice didn't marry another miner. "Hell, no! He's a carpenter. The worst that can happen is he can fall off a scaffold or shoot himself with a nail gun."

But Joy did. Not only is her second husband a miner, he holds exactly the same job Jim did when he died: longwall foreman.

"I had no reservations," she said. "The guys in the mine do their job and they do it well. And what happened that night - well, who can tell you what happened that night."

Despite exhaustive federal investigation and a battery of lawsuits, no one knows exactly what started the mine fire or why one man was able to get out and 27 other miners could not.

Not knowing what happened to the miners in those last hours still haunts the families. And despite considerable healing, they still struggle with loss and loneliness - particularly when December days roll around again.

When Joy went grocery shopping recently, the check-out clerk asked her what she was getting her boys for Christmas. "They already have everything don't they?" the clerk asked.

The careless remark brought tears to Joy's eyes. "I wanted to say, `No, they don't have everything. They don't have their father.'

"What really bothers me is not being able to say goodbye to him," Joy said. "He went to work and I never saw him again. I didn't even get to see him before they buried him. They all came out in body bags.

"There is just no way you can let them go until you say goodbye."

*****

(ADDITIONAL INFORMATION)

Chronology of events

Dec. 16..... A portable compressor near Fifth Right is accidentally turned on during the evening shift by the flip of a circuit breaker at a remote transformer.

Dec. 18..... The compressor continues to run unnoticed by miners. It runs for 69 hours before the fire. The Mine Safety and Health Administration later concluded the compressor was the probable cause of the fire.

Dec. 19..... Evening shift - Six Emery mine officials join miners working in Fifth Right to mark a new production record for the most coal mined in a 24-hour period by longwall mining.

9:15 p.m. - Miners receive word on the mine phone system that there is smoke in the mine. Miners begin evacuating. More than 70 miners get out alive.

10:00 p.m. - Miners fight the fire and realize that several miners are still trapped inside.

Dec. 20..... Emery mine officials announce that 27 miners - including six company officials - are trapped inside.

Dec. 21..... 5:30 a.m. - Rescuers discover nine bodies.

9:00 p.m. - Rescuers find four more bodies.

Dec. 22..... 6:30 p.m. - Rescuers find 12 more bodies.

Dec. 23..... 3:00 a.m. - Officials from the federal MSHA, Emery Mining, the Utah Industrial Commission and United Mine Workers confer and conclude the two missing miners are also dead. Emery mine officials announce plans to seal all portals of the mine to put out the stubborn blaze.

Dec. 29..... The last of 15 portals is sealed.

1985..... Attempts to recover the bodies are thwarted by smoldering coal and poisonous gases.

Nov. 3 - Dec. 16, 1985..... Mine rescuers slowly recover bodies from the burning mine via new entries driven around the fire area.