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'My guardian angel liked me'

by Alecia Warren
| April 9, 2010 9:00 PM

Reflecting on this week's fatal mining accident in West Virginia, Bob Launhardt considered it a throwback to a darker day.

The former safety engineer at the Sunshine Mine in the Silver Valley, Launhardt knows the ins and outs of the historic 1972 fire that took the lives of 91 miners, now honored by the memorial statue with glowing hard hat just east of Kellogg.

The day of the disaster, which Launhardt admits he had never seen coming, forever changed his outlook on mining safety.

"My position on this is if there's a lesson to be learned, it's what caused a fire to become a disaster?" he said on Thursday morning.

There at least should have been some suspicions.

Regardless of theories on what started the fire - arson by a bitter employee, or perhaps miners bungling with a cutting torch - the culprit behind the catastrophe was the polyurethane foam coating a bulkhead 3,700 feet underground.

The British government had warned the U.S. about the dangers of the sealant material. That when applied over large surfaces, it could accelerate a fire and build enough carbon monoxide to cause instant death to those downwind.

"Our government chose to ignore that. I can only speculate on why they did," Launhardt said.

So on May 2, 1972, when smoke began snaking out of the foamed bulkhead in the Sunshine Mine, the material flamed quickly, its toxic fumes spurred through the tunnels by the ventilation system.

"The ultimate finding was that if the polyurethane foam hadn't been there and the fire had started at the same location, no one would have died," Launhardt said.

The safety engineer managed to dodge a poisonous end by caprice of fate. He had hustled out after his inspections earlier than usual, he said, to work on a new safety manual.

"I would not be here today if it weren't for that," he said.

Launhardt had just sat down to eat at 11:30 a.m. when he got the call that a fire had started.

Miner Ron Flory, on the other hand, was in the belly of the 6,000-foot mine at that moment - in tunnels 4,800 feet down.

The then 26-year-old and his partner were heaving muck out of blast areas - hard, sweaty work - when they heard hollers about a fire from the tunnels above.

Dumbfounded, the pair gathered the handful of other miners and made their way to the shaft, where they waited to be hauled up.

"We just couldn't believe that there was anything in a hard rock mine that would burn," Flory said, adding he later learned it was older, wooden building materials that had caught fire.

Waiting to be hauled out, they donned their self-rescuers, or chemical canisters that changed carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide.

As they stood talking, the face masks started getting hot, he remembered.

"We didn't know, but that was normal. That was the chemical reaction as it was changing carbon monoxide to dioxide," Flory said. "We didn't realize that, so when they got hot and hard to breathe through, we pulled them off and breathed around them until they cooled off."

It wasn't long before they started feeling dizzy, he said, and their legs rubbery.

There was no way they could know that hundreds of feet of rock above them, the men running the hoist had died, the contraption now still.

No one would be coming anytime soon.

Paranoid about their growing weakness, the group motored a small tunnel vehicle back to where they thought the air was fresher.

When Flory's partner passed out, Flory recruited another worker to find a better location. They ended up at an intersection where smoke was dissipating through a raise into the tunnel above, fresh air coming in from behind.

Feeling weak-kneed, Flory chose to stay behind with his partner. The other miner drove back to gather the others.

"That's the last time we saw any of them alive," Flory said.

The pair waited and waited, he remembered, and at last he wandered down the tunnel. As he made his way around a bend, he saw two tunnel vehicles sitting still on the tracks. Most of the riders had fallen out and were sprawled on the ground, unmoving.

Neither Flory nor his partner could resuscitate the men.

Pushing the driver's body off a vehicle, the two motored back to their safe spot.

"We had to take care of No. 1 at that point," Flory said.

Keeping the vehicle light on, they arranged beds out of burlap and boards, the custom for miners when they could sneak in a nap on their shifts.

As the hours and days dragged on, they took turns sleeping, keeping themselves strong by rationing the remaining food from their dead coworkers' lunch pails.

"The days were long, the nights were long," Flory said. "When we were both awake, we did a lot of talking about hunting and fishing, our families. How our wives were going to spend the insurance money if we didn't get out alive."

After eight days, when the pair was down to nothing but a single cup of pudding, Flory saw a thin beam of light flash down the tunnel.

His partner grunted that he was crazy, until they both saw it again.

They started beating on water pipes to alert their rescuers, who heard the ruckus and soon hoisted them to safety through a ventilation hole.

They were strong enough to walk out of the mine into the fresh nighttime air, Flory said, where they were greeted with applause and the blinding lights of reporters' cameras.

"We were quite happy," he said.

An investigation never pinned down the cause of the fire. That didn't stop Flory from returning six years later, after learning that jobs above ground didn't pay as well.

The disaster changed his attitude for good, he said, adding that he gives thanks everyday he wakes up "still kicking."

But in his whole mining career, he said, he never doubted that the mine could take it all away.

"I'm a firm believer that if it's your time to go, it's your time to go, no matter where you're at or what you're doing," the 66-year-old said. "My guardian angel liked me, for some reason."

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