Thick smoke billows from the ventilation fan opening at Willberg. Mine rescue teams entered the inferno to try to save the trapped miners, but carbon monoxide had already claimed their lives.
Editor's Note: This is one of a series of articles about the history of the Sun Advocate and the county it covers as a newspaper. The article is being written from front page stories that appeared during each year in commemoration of the 120th anniversary of the newspaper's birth in 1891.
A Price landmark burned and a lot of people lost the place they liked to eat on Sept. 14 when the Towne Bakery and Pizza eatery went up in smoke. At the time of the report, the cause of the fire was unknown, but estimates on the damage to the building and contents was about $150,000. The fire was first reported at 7:30 p.m. but despite fire fighters efforts by 9 p.m. the building was still emitting huge amounts of smoke. At the time the owners weren't sure whether the business would reopen.
During that same week, one of the few public elevators that exist in the county malfunctioned and killed a man working on it. The Orem man who worked for the Montgomery Elevator Company was under the elevator when it came down on him, and the spring at the bottom of the shaft went through his chest. Emergency workers tried various ways to get him out before they finally used both sets of the "jaws of life" that existed at the time in the area to lift the elevator car to get him out.
A month-long strike against the Emery Mining Company took place in the fall. The mines affected by the strike included Des-Bee-Dove, Deer Creek, and Wilberg, with all being managed by the company for Utah Power and Light. The dispute was largely over a pension plan which Emery Mining did not want to pay into and some wage and benefit considerations.
Little did anyone know that this long strike that took a lot of miners out of work that fall was just a minor blip compared to what happened in the early winter at the previously idled Wilberg Mine.
On the evening of Dec. 19, 28 mining employees were in the fifth right longwall section as the crew neared completion of a new twenty-four-hour world-production record. Because of this there were a number of management people at the site that normally would not have been there. At about 9 p.m. that evening fire broke out in first north longwall section near the entrance to the section where the 28 miners were working. First north was the main haulage way into the Wilberg Mine and it consisted of a series of six parallel tunnels running several miles into the mountain. Within a few minutes, smoke and lethal gases traveled the 2,400 feet down the tunnel to the working face of the longwall. One miner escaped, but eighteen miners and nine company officials were trapped and killed.
Those that lost their lives that night included seven residents from Carbon County, 20 from Emery County and one from Millard County. Those from Carbon were Joel Nevitt, 33, Price, Owen Curtis, 31, Price, James Hamlin, 37, Price, David Bocook, 41, Price, Alex Poulos, 33, Price, Leroy Hersh, 60, East Carbon, and Ricci Camberlango, 26, Price. Many of those from Emery that lost their lives were closely related either by blood or marriage to people in Carbon County too. Among those victims was Nannett Wheeler, the first woman to die in a Utah mine since women officially entered mining in 1973.
At the time, rescuers believed that the trapped miners might still be alive, and they worked frantically to reach them. Following three days of effort, rescue crews entered the area where the miners had been working and located 25 bodies. Before the bodies could be removed, however, the fire started back up, forcing the rescuers out of the mine. The company then sealed the mine to kill the fire. Recovery of the bodies wasn't actually completed until nearly a year later.
Not since the Castle Gate Mine disaster in 1924 had the area lost so many mining personnel at once. Over the years there had been many deaths one or two at a time, and a couple of major disasters with the loss of life between five and 10, but this was something no one expected in a day when mine safety was so strongly enforced and long walls were operating with many fewer workers than any other kind of coal mining had in the past.
The entire community was stunned. Almost no one that lived in Carbon County didn't at least know someone who was killed in the disaster, and many were related directly to the dead miners. The area outwardly grieved for months over the loss, some for years. In fact today when one even mentions Wilberg to long time residents, almost all have a story about a person they knew that they lost in the fire.
It wasn't until a year and a half later that investigators were able to get into the mine to really explore what happened and reports on those investigations were almost two years removed from the actual time of the disaster.