THE WILBERG MINE FIRE

The Wilberg Mine fire, which claimed the lives of twenty-seven miners on 19 December 1984, was the most deadly coal-mine fire in Utah history and the worst U. S. mine disaster in a dozen years. Investigation of the fire revealed serious failures by the agencies charged with assuring coal mine safety.

Located in Emery County, some 115 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, the Wilberg Mine was one of three area mines owned by Utah Power and Light Company (UP&L) and used to fuel its nearby power plants.

On the evening of 19 December 1984, twenty-eight people -- over twice the usual crew number -- were present in the Fifth Right longwall section as the crew neared completion of a new twenty-four-hour world-production record. At about 9 p.m., fire broke out in First North near the entrance to the Fifth Right section. First North, the main haulageway into the Wilberg Mine, consisted of a series of six parallel tunnels running several miles into the mountain. Just over a mile along First North were the two right-hand tunnels leading to the Fifth Right longwall section. Within minutes, smoke and lethal gases traveled the 2,400 feet down Fifth Right to the working face of the longwall. One miner escaped, but eighteen miners and nine company officials were trapped and killed. Among the victims was Nannett Wheeler, the first woman to die in a Utah mine since women officially entered mining in 1973.

Rescuers, believing that the trapped miners might still be alive, worked frantically to reach them. Following three days of heroic effort, rescue crews entered Fifth Right and located 25 bodies. Before the bodies could be removed, however, the fire rekindled, forcing rescuers to evacuate and seal the mine. Recovery of the bodies was finally completed in December 1985, nearly a full year after the disaster. The sealed area where the fire began was not opened until July 1986. Only then could the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) begin its investigation into the cause of the fire.

In the Spring of 1987, MSHA ruled that the Wilberg fire was caused by a faulty air compressor, allowed to run unattended in a non-fireproofed area. MSHA issued thirty-four citations against Utah Power and Light and Emery Mining Company (the mine's operator). Nine of the citations were for violations that directly contributed to the disaster. However, MSHA itself received strong criticism from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), in part for failing to issue these same citations when it inspected the mine only days before the fire. The union also questioned MSHA's focus on the cause of the fire rather than the cause of the deaths, insisting that miners died, not because there was a fire, but because they had no escape route.

Following a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing into the Wilberg disaster, Utah Senator Orrin G. Hatch requested an investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO) -- the investigative arm of Congress -- into MSHA's conduct regarding the Wilberg Mine. The GAO review, released in November 1987, cited MSHA for allowing the Wilberg Mine to operate with an outdated firefighting and evacuation plan, to operate with no fire suppression devices, and to run a compressor known to be faulty. The GAO report also criticized MSHA for permitting the longwall section to operate while a tunnel running off the tailgate of the longwall machine was blocked to human travel by a cave-in.

Two monuments stand in Emery County in honor of the twenty-seven who died in the Wilberg Mine fire. One stands outside the Emery County courthouse in Castle Dale. The other, an eight-foot slab of Canadian granite bearing the etched figures of a male and female miner and the names of the victims, stands vigil on a hillside overlooking the canyon that leads to the Wilberg Mine.

See: Mine Safety and Health Administration, Report of Investigation: Underground Goal Mine Fire, Wilberg Mine (1987).

Elizabeth Cocke