50 years beyond survival
On Aug. 29, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his landmark speech and exclaimed, "I have a dream."
On that same day several Utah families waited on the edge of reason, for word concerning trapped miners within the Cane Creek potash mine in Moab. One of those waiting was Myrna Hanna, wife of trapped miner Donald Blake Hanna.
Two weeks ago a reunion of sorts was held in Moab for the survivors of the disaster, and for those that passed away in it. Blake Hanna was one of the survivors and he spoke about his experiences during the event.
The story of Blake Hanna's life and survival is one of hope and perseverance.
"I remember standing a few feet from the lift as it was coming out of the ground," said Myrna. "We knew they were bringing someone to the surface but did not know who. When I saw the top of one head, I knew it was Blake. Our eyes made immediate contact and I can still remember the relief and joy I felt at that moment."
Blake, as he prefers to be called, is a man who not only survived the gas explosion at Cane Creek but used his expertise to save others trapped within the disaster. Blake dedicated his life to mining and to advocating safe practices therein. When he retired in 1998 he had been in coal and hard rock mines for 43 years while putting in 23 with the Mining Safety and Health Administration.
"I started my mining career at the age of 16 in the Latuda Mine at Spring Canyon," recalls Hanna. "I registered for the draft early and then used my draft card as identification to get a job at the mine."
After Hanna had worked at the Spring Canyon mine for a year he enlisted in the Marine Corps and spent three years in military at the end of the Korean War. When Blake returned from service he immediately gained employment at the Sunnyside #1 mine for Kaiser Steel.
During his time in Sunnyside Blake certified as a fire boss and mine foreman. In 1962, upon leaving Sunnyside, Hanna took work at the Cane Creek potash mine in Moab.
"Conditions in the potash mine were dangerous," stated Hanna. "You have to remember that at that point there were no federal regulations on mining and the state inspectors would only show up to the mine if we had a fatality."
According to Hanna, employees at the mine were required to work seven days a week, working all three shifts on a rotating basis. This meant that during a short change miners would only get eight hours between shifts.
On the day of the tragedy at Cane Creek, Hanna, who was 27 years old at the time, reported that he was working with Fred Rolley from Spring Glen, who was also a certified foreman.
"Me and Fred had an agreement that we would be diligent in keeping that mine properly vented, said Hanna. "The day shift had drilled and loaded the holes to the collar with powder, but their shooting battery didn't work so the holes remained loaded when we came on shift."
Hanna went on to report that after Fred Rolley blasted the 43 holes left by the day shift a massive amount of combustible methane gas was pulled to the shop area where a lighted safety lamp was burning.
"The company had issued safety lamps after a previous accident," said Hanna. "But they never really demonstrated just how and when to use these lamps for many of the employees."
According to Hanna, seven men were still alive in the entry way following the explosion. A wall of thick white smoke met the men as they attempted to flee the entryway for a shaft station about 3,000 feet away.
"At that time the pressure started building within the mine and you could literally feel your eyes meet in the middle of you face at your nose," remembers Hanna.
Hanna reported that he and the men used a ripped open piece of flexible tubing to build a brattice barrier to shield them from the smoke. When the first barrier leaked the men went farther back and erected another two barricades for additional protection from the smoke. When they finally got a seal the seven remaining miners took refuge and prepared to try and improve their chances for survival.
"It was so hot in that mine that the sweat was literally running off or our bodies," said Hanna. "We stripped off as much clothing as we could and broke into a one inch water line that was there for our drill bits. It is my belief that if we had not found that water we never would have survived. The heat was so intense that you could not take a full breath, you could only pull air in a little at a time through your teeth."
After getting the water taken care of, Hanna and Paul McKinney went out from behind the barricade to try to repair a compression air line enough to provide better ventilation for him and his men. After working in the smoke for several hours they simply could not find enough material to make a good connection and there was still no air in the pipe.
At one point between trips back and forth from the barricade Hanna located three additional miners lying in the smoke, he pleaded with them to get up and follow him back to the barricade but they had lost the will to move any further.
"That is one of my biggest regrets from the whole tragedy," says Hanna. "I should have saved at least one of those men."
In the morning when Hanna and McKinney again left the barricade, they found the three men dead. It was now 15 hours after the explosion and Hanna was sure that rescue workers had repaired air within the compression line. Blind by this point, he and McKinney were able to scavenge enough repair material to join the two ends of the damaged pipe. And after 30 hours trapped underground, rescue crews finally completed the hookup and got air to the men behind the barricade.
"After ensuring that our patch was good, I looked up and there was an open bucket coming down with mine rescue guys from Sunnyside and Horse Canyon. Because of the amount of water coming down the pipe shaft that open bucket was filling quickly with water and when the level in the bucket reached the rescuers armpits they started to get pretty nervous," recalled Hanna.
According to the life long miner, he was able to climb up a hanging cable and get into the bucket and then help rescue workers get a makeshift chain ladder down to McKinney.
"They had lost communication with the surface, but after awhile we received a shake on the cable letting us know that they were taking us up. And as soon as we got to the top I informed the rescuers that there were still five men trapped behind a barricade in the mine," explained Hanna.
Of the 25 men that were trapped in the mine following the explosion only seven survived.
Following the tragedy, Hanna testified about the conditions at the mine causing a layoff that forced many miners to find new employment.
The testimony helped lead the way for more strict and uniform safety regulation in both hard rock and bituminous coal mines.
After leaving Moab, Hanna moved to Carlsbad, N.M. where he continued working in the potash mines while raising his five children with wife.
After returning to the area and working at Deer Creek for a year he began working as a hard rock inspector for MSHA and in 1974 he transfered to the Price office.
"I did not get along with MSHA and after working for them in five states I decided to organize a local union," stated Hanna. "And the inspectors union I helped set up really upset some within the government."
The union which is part of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Unions, is something in which Hanna takes great pride.
It oversees unions including the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Council of Field Locals. He worked from MSHA for 23 years.