Dec. 16 marks 50th anniversary of a grim day in Carbon County
The year 2013 is almost done, and during these past few months there have been many remembrances of a time 50 years ago. The Kennedy Assassination, the "I have a dream" speech by Martin Luther King, the first nuclear arms treaty, the Beatles' first album release, the first pay equity act concerning the sexes and many other things set 1963 apart from other years. Locally a number of things happened including the Cane Creek Potash Mine explosion which killed 18 men in August of that year.
But as the end of 1963 approached the forces of gas and explosions had not finished with eastern Utah just yet. On Dec. 16, 1963, just before the noon hour, an explosion rocked the Carbon Fuel Mine in Hardscrabble Canyon just outside of Helper.
Nine men died that day in one section of the mine, all that were working there.
Initial reports suggested that the explosion came from right where the men who were killed were working; leaving them no hope of survival. It was considered then and later after an investigation to be a combination of gas and dust set off by a spark. Either a miner or a machine could have set the blast in action.
Nine other miners were working in another section of the mine and felt the blast but at first thought it was a bounce. However when dust and wind from the blast came they knew different.
"The concussion popped our ears," said Chris Diamanti, the underground superintendent that had left the section that experience the blast only 20 minutes before it happened. "We figured it was a bounce and started to probe for it toward the west section."
The blast exited the entrance of the number 2 mine, and blew rock dust up on the canyon walls. It also blew Jesus Nunez, who was checking a conveyor belt 200 feet, leaving him sprawling on the mine floor. He was able to get to the mine entrance where he was taken by the Utah Highway Patrol to the Carbon County Hospital. He survived and recovered after the accident.
Those killed in the mine that day included Victor Fossat, Benjamin Valdez, Gerald Nielsen and Benino Montoya, all of Helper. Archie Alonzo Larsen, Mike Ardohain and Heino Linn were also killed. Spring Glen resident Andy Juvan and Kenilworth resident John Senechal also lost their lives.
Right after the explosion, the miners in the section that experienced the after effects and two mechanics who had been in the mine in another area headed toward the blast area. Rescue teams from other mines also came to the site almost immediately.
"As word came out of the mine from miners attempting to reach the blast area, outside workers began shuttling timbers, rolls of brattice cloth, water and food, nails, hammers and axes," reported the Sun Advocate in its Dec. 19 issue. "The workers had to literally form their own air courses as they slowly moved to the blast area. The blast reportedly blew out as many as 10 permanent cement block stoppings in the crosscuts leading to the working face."
It was hoped at the time that some of the men might have survived, but by 7:30 p.m.the truth was known: No one in the section survived. The bodies of all the workers had been discovered by a Kaiser Steel Rescue team by mid-afternoon but there was still some hope that others may have survived. But the blast apparently killed all in the section immediately. The flash of the explosion was determined to be the cause of death, according to the Sun Advocate reports, but a Deseret News report the next day said the concussion had killed the men.
The mine had been considered a "model of safety" for mines in the area. Only one previous fatality had happened in the mine and that was two years before the explosion. That death was also the only death recorded in coal mines in the area during 1961.
According to a Deseret News report on Dec. 17 the death of the miners left 33 children without fathers. Nunez, the injured miner, had 13 children.
In a press conference that evening James Diamanti, owner of the mine, spoke to the upstate press.
"I am speechless. I am heartsick. I cannot believe this could have happened," he said.