Rescuer's funeral matches his wild, caring spirit
Updated: 7:18 PM- HUNTINGTON - Under sheer sandstone cliffs dappled with tall pines, 18 archers pulled bows taut and let arrows fly toward the heavens in a tribute to a coal miner they called "Bird."
Coal country folks, a thousand or more strong, gathered under huge cottonwood trees at Little Bear Creek Campground in Huntington Canyon on Tuesday to pay homage to Dale Ray Black, 48. The veteran miner died a short distance away Aug. 16 in a rescue operation to save a half-dozen men trapped in the Crandall Canyon mine.
The funeral services were not held in a building, and that's fitting, said Black's brother-in-law, the Rev. Carl Sitterud of the Desert Edge Christian Chapel. The outdoors was Bird's church.
He was a hunter and archer, a fisherman and loved to lead his friends on adventures in the mountains and deserts of Emery County and central Utah.
"He might not have been a religious man, but he believed in God," Sitterud said. "When the name of Dale Black is spoken, it will bring images of unselfishness. He gave his life for his friends."
Black died in the Crandall Canyon mine, along with rescuers Gary Jensen and Brandon Kimber, when tunnel walls exploded as they dug toward six fellow miners who have not been heard from since a massive collapse on Aug. 6.
Childhood friend Kim Louie remembered Black as someone who loved to "fish, hunt and raise a little trouble."
Said Louie: "He was a little crazy. But in a good way. He'd make you get out there and do fun things."
Black was a fun-loving guy, but he always put the welfare of his family and community first.
"He's not a hero just for what he did last week," said Louie. "But because what he did for his wife, his children and his friends."
Black injected energy into everything and everybody, recalled longtime friend Allen Childs. And he loved a good joke.
"Dale lived life in a different sphere," he said. "It was a life on steroids. Dale was 48 years old - and I believe those were dog years."
Bird got his handle from the fraternity he willingly joined - coal miners. It didn't come as a surprise, Childs said, that Black was at the lead of the rescue operation, even though conditions in the mine after the Aug. 6 collapse were extremely dangerous.
"The coal industry is often maligned and misunderstood. But I have never been around a more intelligent, kind, caring group of people," Childs said. "It's a fraternity like firefighters, police or the military. It's a band of brothers, if you will."
And there is little a coal miner fears more than a phone call in the middle of the night, Childs said.
"Bird would love to call me at home at 1 a.m. He would say, 'Al, I did good today. The crew moved 20 cars. I just thought you'd like to know.' "
Black's old friend then looked upward and said, "Bird, you did good and we just wanted you to know."
A friend, who attended the canyon service, Kevin Peacock, said Black was a "good ol' boy" who knew no fear. When other miners were scared to enter the mine after the initial collapse, Black went right in to do what he could.
"If there was a battle, he would be leading the charge," Peacock said.
Black was raised with 10 siblings and was a humble man, recalled Judy Mangum, a family friend.
"He was a wonderful guy," she said. "A man people couldn't help but to love."
Among those who turned out for the funeral was Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who said afterwards that Black was a fine representative of Utah's strong spirit.
"His name will be remembered for generations as a selfless servant, and that is something we can all be made better by."
Also making an appearance at the service was Robert Murray, the Crandall Canyon mine's co-owner.
Relations between Murray and the families of the missing six miners have soured since Black, Kimber and Jensen were killed, along with recent statements Murray has made indicating that the missing miners were likely dead and may never be found.
That tension bubbled into a brief confrontation at the funeral, when a man approached Murray with an outstretched hand. Murray reached out, expecting to shake hands. But the man, who declined to be identified, didn't want to shake. He told the mine owner that his friend was still under the mountain, waiting to be rescued, and accused Murray of abandoning the missing six men.
He then attempted to pass Murray a dollar bill, saying, "This is just to help you out so you don't kill him."
Murray, startled, threw the money on the ground and responded, "I'll tell you what, son, you need to find out about the Lord." Murray's son then picked up the bill and said he would "give it to the church."
But in keeping with the family's request to keep the funeral confrontation-free, many more attendees spoke cordially with Murray, even thanking the owner for his efforts.
And that might have been how Black would have wanted it.
Ashley Pruitt said her father taught her great lessons about strength, caring and understanding
"Life is too short to be mad at people," she said. "Please take this lesson from my father."
Black was laid to rest in graveside services that followed at the Huntington City Cemetery.
Funeral services for Jensen will be held today at noon at the LDS stake center in Salina. Services for Kimber are still pending.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.