Facebook Twitter



FOR THE MOST PART, Sherry Clement is free now. She says she's no longer caught in anger and grief. She's married again. When she and her husband moved to another town, a few years ago, they decided not to talk about the tragedy. Clement wanted her new neighbors to like her for who she is, not because they pity her.

Since then, she's been surprised only once by the old awful feeling. She and her daughter, Jennifer, were on a church camping trip when someone introduced her to an older couple in the group, a man and woman she'd never met before. Suddenly, she was blindsided by fury. She could hardly speak when she heard their last name, even though they had nothing to do with her first husband's death. Just because their name was Wilberg.In 1971 there was a nationwide coal strike. One-sixth of the labor force in Carbon County walked off the job. The miners went out in September, and by November, with Christmas approaching, the entire county felt the force of the strike. There was hardly any work for the railroads. There were fewer customers in the stores, garages, restaurants.

The miners eventually went back. Still, 1971 offered a lesson, in case local residents had a doubt, about how much miners need their jobs and how much the community needs the mines. What could be more bleak for the people of Emery and Carbon counties than a strike during the holiday season?

The answer to that question came in 1984, on the evening of Dec. 19, when a fire broke out in the Wilberg Mine.

Wilberg was a tragedy that captured the nation. Across America, television newscasts showed the smoke boiling out of the side of the mountain. Even people who had never been underground could understand the terror of what was happening in Utah: 27 miners were trapped in hell.

Those of us who lived in Utah 10 years ago remember. For hours, days, we listened to the news and prayed for all of the miners - then for some of them - to be found alive.

Rescue crews found them one by one, sometimes literally stumbling upon a miner in the smoky dark. Twenty-six men and one woman. They were all dead. And before anyone could retrieve their bodies, the fire burned out of control and the mine had to be sealed.

It was a year before the bodies could be brought out. It was several more years before the federal mine safety investigators finished their study and issued a report on the cause of the disaster. The union pressed for, and got, a congressional investigation. Then the union and Congress made reports of their own.

Meanwhile, lawsuits were settled. Most of the widows remarried. Children grew up. Fathers and brothers of the dead miners, and eventually even a son, continue to go underground.

Perhaps it seems as though Wilberg has been forgotten. But 10 years after the fire, for some people, the memory burns on - fueled by anger and bitterness.

From the first, there was plenty of blame to go around. Some families were angry with the Emery Mining Co., owned by Utah Power & Light - though so many mine managers died that night, there was really no one left to be angry with. Some were angry at the union.

Some were bitter about the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency in charge of mine safety and health. Some of the victims' families still believe MSHA cooperated too closely with the mine owners, cared more about company profits than about miners' safety.

John Boylen is manager of operations for Energy West, the company that now runs the mine. He wasn't part of the management then; he wasn't even living in Utah when Wilberg burned. But he's thought about it and he believes, "With a tragedy of this magnitude, there's not just one person responsible."

In mining there's a term called "dangered out." If you are looking for one symbol for the Wilberg fire, here it is.

According to MSHA regulations, passageways must be kept open around the perimeter of the mining sections. The air must be able to move through, so coal dust and gases won't build and cause an explosion. People might need to be able to move through that passageway, too, if the normal entrance to a mining section gets blocked. Blocked by a fire, for example.

As they are being mined, the tunnels and passageways are constantly caving and settling, buckling under the sheer weight of the mountain. One miner is assigned the task of walking through the passages and tunnels, reporting on their condition. If they are beginning to cave, if the coal from the roof is falling down and walls are squeezing in, mine managers can assign a crew to go in and try to maintain them.

In 1984, in the Wilberg Mine, the company asked for and got MSHA's approval to post several passages as "dangered out." The passages were shrinking, growing more dangerous for the mine inspectors to walk through. The company was relieved from its responsibility for maintaining the passages.

The local MSHA division broke its own rules when it granted those variances. It took years for this one tiny truth to sift itself out from all the reports and charts and analyses of the Wilberg fire: MSHA and the company didn't keep enough escape-ways open.

Today some people in the small communities of Carbon and Emery counties feel betrayed by Wilberg. They feel betrayed in the same way the Downwinders feel betrayed: by people in charge who arbitrarily make decisions - about atom bomb testing or mining safety - that end up costing lives.

This makes the grieving harder. You could get trapped in your anger over a loss like this. There is nothing to be done, no one to hate. There is only a nameless, faceless bureaucracy that valued progress over the lives of its citizens.

Mistrust is one of the legacies of Wilberg.

Today, the men who run the mine would like to focus not on the tragedy, not on the frustrations that still linger, but on the progress that's been made. The company has reason to be proud now of its safety record.

In the early 1980s, Utah Power & Light's mines had one of the worst safety records in the country among the largest mining operations. After Wilberg, the company made significant improvements. By the early 1990s, the mines - now owned by PacifiCorp and managed by Energy West - were rated second and third safest in the country.

This year they've done even better. With production at an all-time high, the miners who work for PacifiCorp have the best safety record in the nation. They want this record to be a tribute, mine managers say. They want something this positive to be the legacy of the Wilberg fire.

Jennifer Johansen was 10 days old on Dec. 19, 1984. That evening her father, Lee, reported for work at Wilberg, where he was a mechanic for the longwall mining machine. At 9 p.m., a parts deliveryman spotted heavy smoke near the entrance to the mining section called 5th Right. Fifth Right was where Jennifer's daddy worked. He was trapped behind the fire.

There would never have been so many miners in one section, never so many dead, were it not for the fact that the crew was trying to set a production record that night. Managers who would otherwise have been at home were on hand to cheer the workers on.

When the parts runner called above ground to report the smoke, a man in the communications room called 5th Right and told one of the foremen there was trouble. Within the next few minutes the phone lines went dead.

By all reports, what happened next was chaos. The managers who should have been directing the rescue efforts were all caught behind the flames. Still, from the first moments, other miners raced to fight the fire - swearing in frustration at the lack of water pressure. Still others hurried bare-faced through the passageways, risking their own lives trying to come into 5th Right from behind, through the mined-out areas. They tried desperately to find a way into 5th Right, tried desperately to save some lives, as the fire spread and one section of the mine after another filled with smoke and carbon monoxide.

Back in 5th Right, everyone grabbed their "self-rescuer" oxygen packs. But not everyone put them on. Apparently the carbon monoxide moved in ahead of the smoke - a clear, odorless gas that killed people before they knew they needed a self-rescuer. One group of miners, the managers among them, headed straight toward the fire. They died first. Another group headed away from the entrance, back to the end of the tunnel, where the longwall machine had been shearing off the coal. They were trying to put up a rubber sheet to block the smoke when they were overcome.

One miner, Kenneth Blake, tried to follow the mine managers out the entrance to 5th Right. Groping through the dark, he lost the others. He began to feel along the walls of coal for metal doors. Opening one that was cool to the touch, he was able to go deeper into the mine. When he finally stumbled upon miners who were fighting the fire he was covered in soot and disoriented and had no clear idea of the path he'd taken out around the inferno. Of the 28 who were caught behind the fire, he was the only survivor.

Several other 5th Right miners headed toward the longwall, then made their way across the face of the machine, into the older sections of the mine. They were alone, separated from each other. They may have passed over the bodies of their friends as they searched for a way out through the tailgate and bleeder sections, sometimes crawling through the dense smoke and heat, scrambling against piles of coal in fallen passageways.

Carrying several self-rescuers, one man lived for hours, squeezing himself through a mined-out maze in the bleeder area. He almost made it out, before, exhausted and dazed, he took off his self-rescuer to breathe what looked like clear air but was actually carbon monoxide.

Meanwhile, at her home in the small town of Ferron, on the night of December 19, Sherry Johansen fed baby Jennifer, watched the snow falling heavy and quiet outside her window, and went to sleep. When the baby woke her at 2 a.m., and Lee was not beside her, Johansen phoned her mother.

Johansen's father worked at the mine, too, above ground, on the tipple. She thought he would have called her mother, and he had. Not knowing what horrors the coming day might bring, Johansen's parents had decided to let their daughter get what rest she could. Her mother simply said, "Yes, Dad called. They're working late at the mine."

Bone-tired, the new mother fell asleep again.

When Johansen woke in the morning and Lee was still not home, she went cold with certainty. There had to have been an accident. "I didn't call the mine or my mother," she said at the time. "I just got dressed and waited by the window." Her parents and her brother were her nearest neighbors. She knew one of them would come, and she dreaded the message they would bring. She held her baby. Soon she saw her mother, wading through the new snow, headed toward her house.

Sally and Lester Walls still live where they lived 10 years ago, in a double-wide trailer on a big square lot in Huntington, just down the street from the mining offices. Theirs is a cozy home full of family and antique furniture and, on one recent evening, the smell of fresh gingerbread. Sally Walls and one of her grandchildren have spent the day baking cookies for Santa.

Walls has just come home from the mine, the mine that is called Cottonwood but is, in fact, an extension of the Wilberg mine where Lester Walls Sr. and 23-year-old Lester Jr. were both working on Dec. 19, 1984. Lester Sr. worked days. Lester Jr., the longwall shearer operator on 5th Right, worked the evening shift.

Tonight, as gooey-faced grandkids climb on and off his lap, Walls samples some of the cookies, drinks a cup of coffee and remembers his oldest child. "He was an agitator," says Walls, smiling about the boy who liked to stir things up.

"He was my bud," offers his sister Juanita. His mother calls him "Lessie" and talks about how sweet he was, how hard it was to make him mad. He was a boy who loved sports and hunting and was shy around girls. The Walls say they will never get over his loss. "People who say the pain gets better down the road haven't walked on this road," Sally Walls says.

They are still angry, the Walls explain. Angry at whom? That's the hard question. The Walls don't seem to be angry at the union. And maybe not at the company, either. After all, a different company owns the mine now.

But they have pain still, and where can it go? So the Walls are disgusted with politicians and government in general, it seems, and with MSHA specifically.

A man named John Barton was in charge of the local MSHA, back in 1984, when the company was allowed to danger-off the fallen passageways. MSHA didn't call Barton into the hearings they conducted, according to the union leaders. The union made sure he was questioned during the congressional hearings. He was later transferred to Denver, with a reduction in responsibility. "But at the same salary he was making here," Sally Walls says. "And now he's a mining consultant, back East," says Walls.

They've kept track. They know what happened to Herschel Potter, too, the MSHA agent who conducted the local hearings, interviewing dozens of people about what happened that night. Potter retired after the interviews were over. He has since died, Walls says. "He didn't suffer long enough."

He doesn't have any use for reporters, either, Walls adds. Just after the fire, a reporter posed as someone who cared. She carried a plate of food, walked in the front door, and started asking Sally Walls how she felt. Sally Walls remembers exactly how she felt: invaded and abused, on top of everything else.

As for John Boylen, operations manager for Energy West, Lester Walls knows him pretty well. Though they both call themselves miners, Boylen is management and Walls is union. The separation between union and company is historic and deep. And perhaps, in this part of the state, the separation has been deeper since Wilberg.

Boylen and Walls are both members of the same Masonic Lodge. This should help them trust each other, yet Walls sounds wary. He'll ask you what you think of Boylen. But he won't say what he thinks, except that the man has a hard job.

Once, Walls may have been a trusting, innocent sort of guy - something like his son was at the age of 23. Those days are gone.

To Boylen's credit, Walls says, "John did take Sally underground." It was a long time after her son died, but Sally seemed to be missing Lessie more than ever. She wanted to feel a little closer to him, to see where he worked and what it was about mining that captured his interest.

So they went underground together, the mother and the mine manager. And the mine manager was not immune to her pain, because he himself has a son who is a miner. They stood together, not as management and union, but as two parents, as they watched the longwall shearing off coal.

The strength of the machine amazed Sally Walls, the easy way it cut the coal. Before her eyes the longwall shaved the rock, sending it spraying like the foam of the ocean. Sally Walls didn't love being underground, the way many miners do. Though the tunnels are wide and the air is fresh and cool, the mine is dark. She felt confined. She heard the mountain creak around her but she was not intrigued by its mass, by the mysterious power of the earth. She was glad to go to the mine, but she says she'll never go back.

Though John Boylen was living in West Virginia then, he has his own memories of Wilberg. On the morning of Dec. 20, 1984, he called the offices of Emery Mining and asked to talk to the vice president, Jim Hamlin. He and Hamlin had grown up in the same small West Virginia town, gone through elementary school and high school together. Their fathers were miners. Their families were friends. Hamlin had just hired Boylen to run the Deer Creek mine. Boylen was to be in Utah by Dec. 26.

Boylen wanted to talk to Hamlin about the new job. It was 7:30 a.m., Utah time, so when Hamlin's secretary - the same woman who is Boylen's secretary now - told him Jim was at the Wilberg mine, Boylen knew there was a problem. Vice presidents don't go to the mine at 7:30 a.m. "It's a fire," the secretary conceded. Boylen said, "I won't bother him today" and went to work himself.

Boylen was underground, about an hour later, when his father came to find him. "You must not know what's happening in Utah," the older man said.

"There's a fire at Wilberg."

"You must not know that Jim is trapped in it."

Boylen left work and started making phone calls. He stayed in touch with the national mining community, passing on whatever he learned to Jim Hamlin's parents. He knew before they did, a day later, when Hamlin's body was one of the first found.

Boylen didn't come to Utah that December, but he did come a year later, when his boss in West Virginia was hired by the mining company.

He remembers the day Jim first showed him Wilberg. Boylen found it to be a clean mine. Hamlin had reason to be proud. Boylen says Hamlin and the other managers knew about the problems and were working hard on safety.

Boylen says he always visits Hamlin's mother when he goes home. Then he says that every time he drives up the canyon and sees the Wilberg/Cottonwood Mine, he remembers Jim.

Dave Campbell was working on 4th Right the night of the fire. The miners in his crew were driving a tunnel, getting ready to open a new section of the mine.

When they were warned of the fire, they left the section. The aluminum air ducts overhead were making a popping sound, but Campbell didn't know enough to be terrified. He and some other miners from 4th Right went outside, got firefighting equipment and were on their way back in when a supervisor from another section yelled for them to drop the equipment and evacuate.

Later Campbell learned the ventilating ducts near 5th Right had burned and collapsed. Use of aluminum ducts was one of the safety violations MSHA charged against Utah Power & Light when the federal agency levied an unprecedented amount of fines against the company.

It was one of dozens of violations cited, all of which were remedied. Campbell sounds proud talking about safety improvements. The Wilberg fire is believed to have been started by an overheated air compressor. Just this year, another compressor overheated and burned, but, since Wilberg, air compressors are contained in fireproof boxes. In 1994, no one was hurt when the compressor burned.

Today, Campbell is the president of the local union, 2176. Happy about the improvements, he still worries about the overall safety of the mine.

On a national level, the United Mine Workers have taken a stand against the two-entry mining plan, being used in longwall mining all over the western United States. There were two entries to 5th Right. The entries ran parallel to each other, and shared a common air flow, and when the fire started, they both filled with smoke within minutes.

Company owners say two-entry is safer than multiple-entry mining because extra tunnels increase the pressure, increase the chances the roof will fall. More miners are killed each year by falling roofs than by fires. Thus far, MSHA is allowing two-entry mining.

This year, while Energy West began to open up the Trail Creek mine, adjacent to Cottonwood/ Wilberg, Campbell fought the company over two-entry mining, and over his right to comment on their mining plan. He talks about it with bitterness, not so much because Trail Creek's two-entry mining plan was approved by MSHA, but because of the ugliness of the fight.

Campbell's voice rises in passion as he talks about mining today. He says miners don't go out on strike any more, they negotiate. He says the miners who work for Energy West are the most productive in the nation, and they deserve to be rewarded for their productivity with the safest possible mines.

He says he and the other miners who go underground every day don't have any grand schemes or political ambitions. "We don't want to change America. We just want to go home at night."

Campbell's throat closes up when he talks about Lester Walls Jr., about what a nice kid he was.

Wilberg still affects Dave Campbell. It still affects others, too, like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who led the congressional hearings.

"In a way it changed my life," he says. "I still grieve for those families. Almost 30 people died because of errors, mistakes." Over the past decade, most of his fellow Republicans talked about deregulating the mining industry. Hatch says he was talking safety and compensation for miners with black lung disease. National labor statistics show miners die at a rate four times higher than American workers in general. Says Hatch, "They deserve an extra edge."

Wilberg reminded us all of our own mortality, says Pat Shea. In the aftermath of the fire, Shea was the attorney for the Society of Professional Journalists when reporters sued to be allowed into the MSHA hearings.

He remembers it often, says Shea. "Sitting in a sober courtroom when Judge Winder ordered the government to give the public and the press access to its hearings." The government's attitude, as expressed by its attorneys, was that the government was above all this and not to be dissuaded - by the tragedies of mere humans - from going about its important business. Shea uses the word "arrogance."

This year Shea and his wife have been invited to attend the annual memorial service, held for those who died in Wilberg. It's kind of a private affair. Shea feels honored.

As for Elizabeth Fillmore, she's not going to the service. She doesn't need it to remind her of Lynn Robinson, her first husband. She sees him every day in the faces of her three oldest children.

She knows he died needlessly. And she used to be quite angry. But now the outrage has passed. Lynn's parents are more angry than she, she says.

Fillmore feels lucky to have remained close to her first husband's parents. She and Lynn's mother took the children to Nebraska last summer, to visit relatives. The Robinsons are fond of Elizabeth's husband, Carl. Elizabeth Fillmore feels thankful for the measure of peace the family has achieved, and thankful for her children, who have brought joy back into the holiday season.

Sherry Johansen got entangled in a lawsuit with Lee's parents just after he died. Lee had not changed the beneficiary on his life insurance policy when he married Sherry, about a year before the fire. She and his parents shared the money and not a word has passed between them since.

Sherry Johansen is now Sherry Clement. Ten-year-old Jennifer is happy and smart, a good example to her five younger brothers and sisters. Utah Power & Light settled out of court for $22 million, divided among the victim's families and their lawyers. Jennifer's trust fund recently paid for her braces and will pay for college, too, when the time comes.

She tells her friends that her first daddy died in a fire in a coal mine. She knows she has another set of grandparents who send her a Christmas present every year. Otherwise, she is just like the other children in the family. Her father loves her just like he does the other children, says Clement.

Along with the harder lessons, about mistrust and anger, these too are the lessons from Wilberg. People can forgive and go on. People can love someone else's child. People can remember what needs to be remembered, change what needs to be changed, let go of the rest.

If you attempt to balance out the healing against the hurt, the healing wins. Sherry Clement was in charge of the Wilberg Action Committee bank account, and for many years she paid for the mailings that kept all the grieving families in touch with each other. A few years ago, the bank account ran out. She closed it. No one called to ask where the newsletter was. The families no longer needed each other's support.

But the miners still do need each other and they always will. The company managers need the union labor. Everyone wants the company to make a profit, so they can keep their jobs. Everyone depends on MSHA inspectors to keep the mines safe.

During the past year, the union and the company have disagreed, struggled. Both sides believe they learned a lesson from Wilberg and that, today, by their actions they are honoring the memory of the miners who died.

A report from the congressional subcommittee in 1988 cautioned against two-entry mining, but MSHA says it can be done safely. This is perhaps the final lesson for the future. There were no federal employees behind the fire in 5th Right that night. Maybe there would have been if the fire had happened during the day.

But as it was, there were union miners and company men, and no matter what their differences might have been, they all died together that night.