AN UNCALLED WITNESS
THE WILBERG COAL MINE DISASTER
DECEMBER 19, 1984
It has been alleged a compressor fire in the Wilberg Mine Disaster trapped and took the lives of 27 coal miners. If in any way that statement has substance, it is only symptomatic of the truth. Those with the information as to the true cause of that fire, the Industrial Commission for the State of Utah, the Mining Safety and Health Administration – Federal Government, Emery Mining Corporation, United Mine Workers of America, and Local 22 through its agents and Mike Delpaiz, were well aware of the underlying causes of that fire about a year before it happened. The mine superintendent George Bell for the Des Bee Dove portal complex managed by Emery Mining Corporation also knew of the underlying causes of this fire. He was told directly by the uncalled witness. Instead of managing the information he had, probably for the sake of his position with Emery Mining Corporation, a few months later his grandson, Phillip Bell, became one of the 27 who died in that fire.
Chapter 1 of AN UNCALLED WITNESS
Room 115 – “You are going to go to prison!”
On December 19th, 1984, a fire broke out in the Wilberg Coal Mine, near Huntington, Utah. The Wilberg fire took the lives of 27 people. Players in the subsequent investigation each knew vital information at the heart of the question: What was the cause of the fire? That information was hidden by the players and after almost thirty five years is still hidden! The families of those miners needed this information for the subsequent law suits. The public needed the information to help bring accountability and increased safety. The coal mine explosions and fires of today demand this information.
Twenty-eight people went to work with a dream and ambition of setting a longwall coal production world record. Their reward for this championship endeavor would be quality jackets declaring the record. They were to receive a steak dinner for them and their spouse. And the promises included a $100 bonus.
I watched, transfixed to our T.V. for any news on the fate of our trapped friends over the next few days. On December 23rd, 1984 a news reporter suddenly shifted the microphone from the face of a wife of one of the trapped miners. On her lap was their son. Next to her feet was her little daughter of almost two years.
Tears were streaming down her face. She valiantly tried to maintain her composure. In the surprise move the zealous reporter shoved the microphone in the face of the almost four-year-old boy sitting on her lap. She purred, “What do you want for Christmas?”
We could see the boy was puzzled by his mother’s crying. But he reached out with the faith only the truly innocent and young can have. He said, “Daddy is coming home. He is bringing us presents.” He looked up at his mother as if to say, “It’s going to be OK mommy.” But Daddy didn’t come home. He did not bring presents. He didn’t get a nice jacket declaring the championship record. He didn’t get a dinner, or the promised $100. On December 29th the final fate of the trapped miners was guaranteed when the mine was sealed. The bodies were recovered 11 months later. The toll the tragedy left included 65 children without one of their parents in addition to spouses, other family and loved ones left behind.
Two months later I was invited to Room 115 of the Quality Inn in Price, Utah in the late afternoon of February 18th, 1985 by the federal Mining, Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigators. Investigators Jack Smith and Ted Kauffman were investigating causes of what was to become known simply as the Wilberg Mine Fire or the Wilberg Tragedy.
It was nearing 4:00 p.m., dusk of an overcast day. The road was covered in ice making it treacherous to drive or to walk on the sidewalks. On the way to my appointment I’d stopped to pick up Ray Hamaker, aka, “the Rock.” I wanted a witness.
I pulled into the motel parking lot, trying to think my way through these things. The first thought I had was one of fatalistic excitement, knowing that I would finally get listened to by people able to do something. Tugging at the other side was the thought, but friends and acquaintances are already dead! There was a satisfaction in realizing vindication and vengeance was but moments away. But as I sat there, other thoughts started to intrude.
Rock looked at me. “What? What’s on your mind?”
“Something isn’t right here. I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve got a bad feeling.” As underground miners, we had learned to honor “bad feeling.” Those who did not were carried out of the mine on a back board, or worse.
We sat there for a couple of minutes, both staring at the door. Rock finally said, “We could just leave.”
I shook my head no. “I’ve come too far to just leave.”
We saw Ted Kauffman escort someone out of the door. I recognized Kauffman more easily in person than on the phone. I’d seen him before during the discrimination complaint I’d filed some time earlier. He had been at the Union Administrative buildings here in Price, Utah.
Kauffman looked at us. He ducked back into the motel room. Rock and I got out, stepping carefully across a small snow bank that had iced up. I looked at my watch, and then knocked on the door. Time had moved slowly from when we pulled up with only seven minutes having passed. At 3:57 in the afternoon, with dusk fast approaching, the door opened.
After introductions we all sat down at the round brown table that was much too small to conduct any real business on. Jack Smith asked Rock, “Are you a Wilberg miner?” Rock responded simply, “Yes.”
Jack Smith looked at me. “But you are not, are you Mr. Leach.”
His tone made a statement, but I took it as a question. “No, I am not a Wilberg miner.”
Kaufman asked, “Then you really don’t have anything to tell us about the causes, do you?”
“I wouldn’t agree with that statement.”
Smith had already leaned back, rocking his chair up on two legs, to rest against the wall at an angle. Kaufman did just the opposite, leaning his chair forward just a little on the front two legs, to lean his chin on his hand with his elbow on the table. He stared at me. “What do you think you have to say?” As he talked he shuffled papers, putting a note pad on top of the pile.
I thought about what had brought me here, thought about the Industrial Commission, the Union, the deaths of so many I knew. I looked around the room for a second, trying to think of how I might make the most effective presentation.
In that moment I realized how naive I had been. One of the players in the causes of the mine fire was MSHA and their investigators—these same investigators! If they had done the job they are charged to do, the fire would never have occurred.
I reached down to my canvas satchel, pulling out another copy of the information I had shared with the union just three weeks earlier. I slowly laid it on the desk as my hand started to shake, my mind was in overdrive. I couldn’t think of a way out of the situation at this point. My survival mode screamed at me to leave, over ridden by my sense of indignation. I knew I wanted this information in their hands more than I didn’t want to be here.
Adrenalin flowed and my hands continued to shake while I put the pile of information down on the table. “This contains all of the documentation I collected concerning practices of employees of EMC, the EMC management practices, the Union, Utah, and even you guys, MSHA. I think that I can prove with this information you were all in bed together.”
I’d found a hook, a way to motivate these men to do what they were supposed to do. “I think you are both in unique positions to be real heroes in this investigation.” I tapped the top of the box of papers and pointed at him.
In my gut I knew the posturing would fail but I was driven by a compelling need to try to get someone to do something. These were the last people who I could have a dialog with that could or possibly would do anything about correcting the deep rooted faults I had uncovered.
I had never seen anyone in real life move more deliberate than he did sitting up to face me, pulling his chair closer to the table.
“Why don’t you just tell me the high points?”
I talked about issues surrounding the requirements of electrical certification under the Utah state system of rules and regulations. I switched to the federal issue of “qualification” requirements for maintenance people working for EMC doing electrical work. I explained how the feds were responsible for monitoring the qualification requirements and the test taking. I started to talk about the jurisdictional fight between the state of Utah and MSHA.
Ted held up his hand, interrupting me. His face was hard, his granite chiseled frown barely discernable. He told me, “Your information will not help the investigation. It will only confuse things. Drop it!”
“Like hell I will.” I almost shouted it at him. Taking a deep breath I leaned back. “I told George Bell (the Deseret, Beehive, and Little Dove’s Mine Superintendent) these practices will kill someone. I am certain the fire will be electrically related when you guys actually get in there!”
Ted jumped up, pointing at me. His chair toppled backwards. His words were punctuated with a stabbing forefinger. “I will tell you what will be found. You, YOU…” He started shaking that same finger at me. “… and other innocents you drag down with you will be found to have falsified federal documents. You will go to prison for five years or more. That is what you are going to get! That is all you are going to get! The stuff here is meaningless to the fire!” He stepped back a little, gritting his teeth.
I needed time to think but there was no time and no thoughts came during the brief interval before Kauffman again spoke. He took his own deep breath. “If your story is disclosed, I personally will see federal felony charges against you and see you in prison.” I looked to the pointing, shaking finger and then back to his face.
Kauffman had put fear into part of me, and anger in another part. Yet from somewhere I was thinking, Easy, easy!
Kauffman pulled the box of papers to him while I stood there shaking with anger. I flipped him the bird and walked out with Rock right behind me.
Outside, Rock laughed. “Well you sure didn’t tell him!” We both laughed at that, relieving a lot of the tension, but it took almost half an hour for the adrenaline to reach a level that allowed me to collect my thoughts.
In looking back over the two months that brought me to this little room I thought of the friends I had talked to and loved ones of those killed in the mines. I had told some of them of the failures of Emery Mining Corporation, (EMC) the management team errors that caused the deaths of so many close to us all. The family members’ attitude was to let the dead rest undisturbed. No one wanted to disturb the dead by implicating them in the circumstances leading up to the fire.
As we drove back to his home I talked to Rock. “I was just wondering if the mining families really don’t want the memory of their dead disturbed, or is it the code?”
Rock and I had talked many times about the union code of, “Don’t rat out a brother.” He knew what I meant.
“They weren’t watching out for the brothers. They were watching out for each other.” Rock shrugged. “What can you do?”
That question put me back into thought.
I’d told the Industrial Commission for the State of Utah during this same two month period of time of the conditions and circumstances leading up to the fire.
At one occasion in the middle of January 1985 I was at the Mining Center at the Carbon County Community College. Bob Bishop who worked for the Commission and had enforcement power for the state of Utah, ignored the information, telling me he wanted nothing to do with it. Dave Cave, the senior investigator in that office was brought to tears, telling me, “I did all that was in my power. I couldn’t stop it. There were political reasons that go to the heart of that information.”
Bob Bishop had told Dave, “Shut up!”
Dave had angrily told Bob, “Go to hell.” There was a significant pause. Dave looked like he was going to say more. But he turned back to me, “Sorry Don, you are on your own on this one.” He shook my hand and then turned. He walked away hanging his head. Bishop was glaring at him and when I looked at Bishop, he turned his glare to me. I stood there looking back. Finally he’d said, “Why don’t you get the fuck out of here!” So that day, I left.
Now I felt the same sense of despair. “Rock, I don’t know what I am going to do. It seems as if no one really cares about why those people are really dead. I just don’t know. I will have to think on this for a while. I’m not going to jail for their stupidity!”
Sometimes Rock was slow to speak, but it was always worth listening to. “Maybe the timing is right to go back to Freddy and Mike?”
After the investigations in early January of 1985 had first started, I’d gone to a union meeting for all EMC employees at the hall. The weather had been bad but a huge crowd was already there. I was not as early for the 7:00 p.m. meeting as I thought I would be. The hall was poorly lit. In a back corner to the left and away from the door three restaurant type booths sat empty.
I’d met Freddy Crispin and Mike Delpaiz, both elected officials of Local #22. Delpaz was President. We shook hands and wandered over to the booths. No one sat in either of the other two booths even though the hall was full to standing room only.
We sat down. Freddy got right to it. He gestured for me to give it to him. “Let me see what you have.”
I handed Freddy copies of all of the information I had gathered over a period of fighting for my job during the lay-off process.
“Freddy. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. I just have it compiled. You know what it shows—we talked about it on the phone earlier today. Some of it was part of the grievance and hearing!” My emotions were near the surface. I recognized I had pushed my own buttons. It was hard work to bring myself back under control.
Mike Delpaiz leaned across the table a little and asked in a quiet voice as he took the binder from Freddy, “Do you have everything we talked about? Is this all of the information?” He tapped the pile of papers. With his palm as he pointed to me.
It’s just a copy, you dumb son-of-a-bitch, I thought. But leaning forward conspiratorially, I whispered, “Yes.”
We locked eyes. I added, “Everything.” Our stares of deceptions were broken by Mike Delpaiz who said, “Good. We will see that this…” he placed his hand on the inch thick pile of information, looked around, and then said, “…we’ll see it gets into the hands where it can do the most good.”
Mike pulled the documentation closer to him. We engaged some small talk about how it was this kind of information that could and would lay the blame for killing the Wilberg workers right where it belonged. Mike concluded the short meeting by getting up, putting out his hand to shake. I shook his hand firmly, noticing his own limp handshake.
“Don. You are a good union brother,” Mike said.” I wish we had more members like you.” He left Freddy and I to talk.
The winter road kept my attention as I drove with Rock. I asked, “Rock, do you remember the union meeting a few weeks ago?”
“I gave all of the information to Mike and he said he would take care of it?”
“Yes. I saw it. They got it.”
They told us of our responsibility as “brothers” to work to see that this kind of thing didn’t happen again. They reminded us of the investigation. They told us that if we were called to testify about anything at all, give truthful information, then report back to them or Mr. Delpaiz.
“It was the same information I gave to Freddy that Mike took, that I gave to Smith and Kauffman today. They didn’t even look at it. They already knew what it was!”
Rock and I both knew the only practical place that information had been fully compiled other than my records was that in the hands of the union.
The information covered the fact Emery Mining Corporation did not have legal maintenance persons nor legal Fire-bosses working for them. They had copies of all my original notes, journal entries, copies of letters I had sent to various people in responsible positions, and information about the EMC training program.
The documents told of what coal mining is really like, and the transformation I went through from a mercenary fighting for my job to crusader for the safety of all underground miners.
The information shared with the union and MSHA through Kauffman showed the transformation during the process of fighting for my job after a reduction in force (RIF) where I grew into knowing these safety issues were bigger than me and whether I had a job. It showed how I unwillingly became a prophet of doom while arguing my case for retaining my job – telling the management team of the ultimate dangers for violation of safety laws which in essence foretold the deaths of those miners.
Ted Kauffman was the investigator who invited me to meet with the investigators that 1985 February evening in room 115 at the Quality Inn. I remembered him from an earlier involvement in a discrimination claim I had filed. I asked during that phone call, “Why me? I didn’t work at Wilberg.”
His reply sounded dry over the phone. “We heard you have some information about the cause of the fire,”
“I believe so.”
“Then we want to see what you have, hear what you have to say.” Ted sounded non-committal, distant.
The epiphany struck me so hard I pulled off into a wide spot the snow plows had made.
Rock looked at me. “Are you having the same thoughts I am?”
“I don’t know. It just hit me. Mike already sold me out at least once. They don’t want their union brothers, the very ones who elected them to know of their lack of involvement. And they don’t want anyone to know that they had this information in their hands and sold me out, killing our friends in the process.”
Rock said, “It isn’t hard to take the next step. The same is true for the MSHA boys back there.”
“It’s like one of those cartoon paintings. As the paint flows over the canvas, we get to see the whole picture. No one listened. Each of the groups were motivated for their own reasons, and they just kept on keeping on to hide things. Our friends and union brothers compromised safety for jackets, a dinner with their wives, and because it was a habit. The Industrial Commission continued in conjunction with MSHA continued to lay a trap for our unsuspecting miner brothers and Nan, who was also one of the 27 killed. And the union watched it all but said and did nothing to warn their brothers and sisters they were assisting in bringing to pass the deaths of 27 miners that cold fateful day.”
I must have been stung in the eye by a bee because real men don’t cry. “And do you know what the worst part is?”
Rock looked at me tearfully. He’d shared a lot with me over the last few months. “I think you are going to tell me.”
The pause was long. “You’re right. The worst part is that I am not going to do one more damn thing about it!”
At that time, the statement was true. Life went on and as we near the 35th anniversary of the Wilberg Mine Disaster, it is time, time to give voice to the dead, not only those first entombed in the very darkness that was so much a part of their lives, but for their posterity and that of others who question but do not get answers.