EAST CARBON CITY, Carbon County — Leroy "Tom" M. Hersh should be retired with his wife, Ruth, living the good life — spending half the year at their second home in Sun City, Ariz., and the other half at their home in East Carbon, Utah.

But the couple's plans never materialized. Tom Hersh was one of 27 miners who went missing during the Wilberg Mine fire of 1984. Their bodies were not recovered for nearly a year.

"This time right now, with all of this, it's so hard," Ruth Hersh said. "It's very difficult."

Ruth Hersh was referring to the present day Crandall Canyon Mine accident in Huntington Canyon, where six men have been trapped underground and have not been seen or heard from since Aug. 6.

Ruth Hersh said the similarities between the two accidents — the hope that the trapped miners are alive, the waiting and the media coverage — dredge up the past.

"It's like you kind of have nightmares again," she said.

Tom Hersh, 59, worked as a service foreman in the Wilberg Mine, outside Orangeville, Emery County.

It was snowing on the night of Dec. 19, 1984, Ruth Hersh remembers. The fire sparked about 10 p.m. Ruth Hersh received a call at midnight.

"They said, 'Tom is behind (the fire),"' Ruth Hersh said. "I told them, 'You know Tom's very experienced. He's had a lot of training. He's helped in a lot of mine rescues."'

Ruth Hersh at first was one of the more optimistic family members of the missing 27 miners.

But as time wore on, she quit her teaching job in East Carbon to focus on their two children.

Federal investigators never conclusively determined the fire's cause. It was either a overheated conveyor belt or air compressor, said Sue Ann Martell, director of the Western Mining and Railroad Museum in Helper.

Mine bosses were trying to beat a production record, operating the mine several 24-hour days nonstop.

"They were working continuously," Martell said.

The overheated machine ignited the highly flammable coal.

"Coal dust itself is extremely explosive," Martell said.

Coal fires can burn below the earth for years: "They don't go out until they run out of fuel," she said.

About 10 days after the fire began, officials began sealing off the mine, hoping a lack of oxygen would snuff out flames. The mine was completely sealed Jan. 2, 1985.

On Feb. 15, officials re-entered the mine, but found the fire was still raging. They decided to fight the flames as they moved through the mine in an attempt to reach the missing 27, who were presumed dead.

Heat and gas forced firefighters out of the mine on April 17. They re-entered later that spring and slowly doused burning sections of the mine. They removed the first bodies Nov. 6, 1985.

From the government investigation and talks with other miners, Hersh decided her husband died while he was leading others out of the mine, but the one survivor of the accident hasn't opened up about that day.

Ruth Hersh remembers feeling some closure with her husband's funeral.

"Finally," she said. "I don't know what I buried but I did bury something. It was 11 months after the accident."

Tom Hersh starting working in the local coal mines with his brother, Guy Hersh, as a teenager, back in the days when coal was transported from the mines on horses.

Tom Hersh was in the Marines, stationed in Japan, during World War II.

The brothers remained close through adulthood — often only living a few houses apart.

"He was a wonderful brother," Guy Hersh said.

Guy Hersh is sympathetic to the families of the Crandall Canyon Miners.

"I think they ought to get those miners out," Guy Hersh said. "I don't care what kind of shape they're in. A body means a lot to a family ... And they may be alive."


E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com