When a mining disaster struck Crandall Canyon 10 years ago, women held their community together

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon visits a memorial to the nine coal miners lost at Crandall Canyon a decade ago, when she had been mayor just two weeks. The memorial sits in a beautiful grove of pine and aspen trees behind the shuttered Emery County coal mine.

Huntington • Ten years ago Sunday, Hilary Gordon had been mayor of this small coal-country town for just two weeks when the Crandall Canyon mine’s walls blew in.

Six miners were left missing behind rubble that filled nearly half a mile of tunnels deep beneath the Wasatch Plateau in Emery County.

While the almost exclusively male brotherhood of coal miners began trying to dig them out — a risky endeavor that ended up costing three more lives — Gordon was one of many women who stepped forward to provide solace for the grieving and food for victims’ families and rescuers. In doing so, they helped the people of Huntington and its surrounding communities get through a disaster that started grim and got worse.

“I’m an organizer, and I was able to organize,” said Gordon, now 73 and ending her tenure as mayor at year’s end. “To think I did anything extraordinary is not true. I’m just grateful for those who stepped up to assist. It’s always a nucleus of people … and that’s how it was, the community as a whole.”

‘Mostly it was broken hearts ’  

An early-morning phone call from her daughter informed Gordon of the 2:48 a.m. implosion, measured as a magnitude 3.9 earthquake. By the time she reached Huntington City Hall, its telephone lines were lit up.

“I couldn’t put one line down and the other would start ringing,” she said. Often the callers were news organizations, propelling Gordon into weeks of interviews with the likes of Larry King and the Today Show.

There wasn’t much to report at first about the status of the six — Don Erickson, Manny Sanchez, Kerry Allred, Luis Hernandez, Brandon Phillips and Carlos Payan.

Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., whose subsidiary co-owned and operated Crandall Canyon mine, initially hoped to reach the miners via adjacent tunnels. But those tunnels were blocked, too.

To plow through the rubble, the company brought in mining equipment from its mines in Carbon County. Contractor Nielson Construction and local suppliers delivered support materials to the mine, a 25-minute drive up Huntington Canyon from the city.

A crew from Scamp Excavating in Wellington cut a road across the mountaintop overhead, in perilous conditions at night, so drill rigs could be moved into place above the miners’ suspected location. Bore holes would be the quickest way to discern whether anyone survived the implosion.

As the rescue effort began, Gordon and city councilwomen Julie Jones and Cathy Cowley went to the city’s senior center, where the victims’ families had gathered to await news from company and federal mine-safety officials.

“We were all just sick for them,” said Cowley. “If we didn’t know the immediate person involved, we knew someone related to them. It was heart-wrenching.”

Like Gordon, Jones suspected most family members realized a happy ending was unlikely.

“I saw hopefulness at times, but mostly it was broken hearts. We all knew, I think, that they weren’t going to be able to get them out. But we were still trying to give them hope,” said Jones, who always tried to look upbeat even though she was worried sick about her son, Elam, a rescue team member.

The women knew the families and rescuers needed food. For several days, they made calls and fielded donations from people and local businesses, such as BK’s Stop-N-Shop, and distributed breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

“We tried to do something with the children,” Cowley added. “Young women came in to play games with them and do drawings so they weren’t just sitting there watching their mother or grandmother crying.”

Hugs were Jones’s specialty.

“They needed a momma to hold onto. That’s what I hope I was for them, just a little comfort they couldn’t get elsewhere.”

A bit of hope ... then a second explosion  

To help the families of Latino miners, many from Mexico, Maria-Cruz Gray of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City drove to Huntington right away. She stayed with a former student, Rosario Leoncano, who lived in the same trailer court as Payan. Leoncano awoke the morning of the mine collapse to the sounds of mourning outside her window.

“I stayed for a week,” said Gray, the diocesan Hispanic affairs director. “We sang. We hugged. We held hands and prayed. It was a faith moment.”

She also helped arrange for Catholic Bishop John Wester to celebrate a Mass at the San Rafael Mission in Huntington.

“It made all the difference for the Catholics,” she said. “Hispanic people sometimes feel abandoned. They come here because they want to eat three times a day. They take whatever jobs they can, and what was offered to them was work in the mines. … Their church is the best place for them to come together to pray. So when they see the number one person in Utah coming to see them, it meant a lot. It was like, ‘Yes, God is with us.’ ”

But time wasn’t.

Despite working around the clock to cut their way roughly 2,400 feet to the miners’ working section, crews generally advanced just a couple of hundred feet daily — less on days when they were forced to leave because the mine’s walls were too unstable.

Over three weeks, seven bore holes were drilled into areas where rescuers guessed the miners might have sought refuge. Microphones, cameras, atmospheric monitoring devices, even a miniature robot were lowered — but there were no signs of anyone, only air quality insufficient to support human life and big debris piles.

A bit of hope emerged Aug. 15, nine days into the disaster. Two of six instruments called geophones detected a noise for five minutes, spurring hopes a survivor was trying to make sounds to alert rescuers he was alive.

But that noise was never heard again. And the next day, at 6:38 p.m., a second violent implosion blasted the rescuers. Miners Dale Black and Brandon Kimber were killed, along with MSHA inspector Gary Jenson. Six men were injured.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ten years after the death of their father, Brandon Kimber, in the Crandall Canyon mine, twins Peyton and Paxton Kimber share a love of sports with their sister, Bryton Kimber. They and their mother, Kristin Cox, center, have been joined by a younger brother, Treyton Cox.

’A moral and brotherly duty ’ 

Sue Copinga was one of the emergency medical technicians stationed at Crandall Canyon that night.

When the wall blew in, she jumped into a pickup with two miners and hurried to the accident scene. Rescuers in “coal-soiled clothes” lifted a man on a stretcher into the back of the truck.

Copinga tended to his wounds, tying rags and a shirt around his bare feet. She struggled to take blood pressure readings by headlamp as the truck bounced along the rough tunnel road toward the surface and a waiting ambulance. It took them to Castleview Hospital in Price, where the miner survived and was reunited with his relieved wife.

“I was just there, at that place, at that time. What I did wasn’t a whole lot different than what I had done for 10 years and what other EMTs do all the time,” said the now 72-year-old grandmother from Elmo. “The fact it was in a mine makes it a little more important to some people. … It just happened to be during one of those landmark tragedies for our community.”

Kimber had called each night after his rescue shift to assure his ex-wife, Kristin Cox, and their kids he was safe. The couple were still close, raising 5-year-old daughter Bryton and 4-year-old twins Peyton and Paxton.

“We kind of asked him not to [participate in the rescue], but he was insistent. He had been on that [missing] crew before he became a boss on another crew,” she said. “He felt those were his brothers and he needed to go in. It was a moral and brotherly duty.”

But that evening, the call came from his brother, who told Cox that Kimber was hurt and heading in an ambulance to the Price hospital. Cox found out there that he had died.

“In our house, it’s never forgotten,” said Cox, whose three kids are now teenagers and, like their dad, talented in baseball and fastpitch softball.

“The kids are old enough now that they ask a lot of questions about him,” she said. “Bryton wears a little necklace with his thumb print on it and only takes it off when the umpire tells her to. The boys play on a travel team in Spanish Fork. Brandon is with them all the time. I don’t think he’d ever leave their side. He’d be super proud of them. They get good grades. They have goals.”

The kids also honor their dad’s memory by picking uniform numbers included in his birth date — 6, 22 or 78.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wendy Black, widow of rescuer Dale Black, releases a six-month old Golden Eagle from the top of the Great Western Trail. Friends and family of the miners and mine rescuers were invited to gather and send prayers for their loved ones aloft with the young eagle.

‘Dale was with me’

Known to most by his nickname, “Bird,” charismatic leader Dale Black spent day after day on the rescue.

“Every day, I was worried he wasn’t going to come home,” said his widow, Wendy Black. “I tried not to think about it while he was there.”

She takes no comfort in knowing Black died instantly, his body taking the full force of the implosion, shielding another rescuer from fatal injuries. But she did experience some spiritual relief two weeks after his death, when a Cedar City man who rehabilitates injured eagles brought a bird to Huntington so the families could participate in its release.

The families gathered high on the Wasatch Plateau. Replicating an American Indian tradition, the still-hooded eagle was passed gently from one family to the next so members could touch its wings and say a prayer that would be carried into the heavens when the eagle flew off. Given Black’s nickname, Gordon asked Wendy to release the eagle.

“To let go of it was a very, very special moment in my life,” Wendy said. “Right then, it was like Dale was with me in everything I was doing.”

The beauty of the moment took Gordon’s breath away.

“Wendy let the eagle go and she flew around over the top of us, made a circle two or three times before she moved off,” the mayor said. “Everyone felt a great relief of the sad energies they were holding inside.”

Black cherishes the memory.

“My four grandkids will never have their grandpa. They’ll never know how wonderful he was,” she said. But now, “every time we see an eagle, we tell the grandkids, ‘See, Grandpa is looking over us.’ “

‘The other side of nurturing’

The families picked nurse-turned-sculptor Karen Templeton to create a memorial. While the disaster unfolded she had wondered what she would want if her husband was killed — something to touch, his face. She focused on the faces of the fallen nine.

“The people I wanted to touch were the women,” said Templeton. “Women carry pain for a long time. These really deep cuts in their psyche don’t heal quickly.

“It seems like it’s part of our role. It’s the other side of nurturing, the remembering and keeping things alive.”

She relied heavily on family pictures.

“We talked a lot,” she said. “It was while we were doing that that a lot of women began to grieve. Earlier, because of so much media attention, they shut down and didn’t grieve. This [studio] became a place where we cried. It was rare for a family member to come here that we didn’t cry.”

Families were free to watch her work on their loved ones. Even though there were language barriers with Spanish-speaking families, Templeton said she formed connections with many women, particularly Carlos Payan’s mother.

“For her, the main emotion was just this ripping loss,” Templeton said, while for the widows, moms, sisters and daughters of the fallen rescuers, “there was another level of pain and pride. There was this conflict of wishing they hadn’t gone in [to the mine] but pride that they had. Those two things were parallel, absolutely bound together.”

Templeton’s monument was unveiled in 2008 in a small park next to Huntington’s cemetery. Nearby is another memorial to all of the Huntington men who have died in mine disasters. It includes Jones’s son, Elam, killed by a rock fall in 2013.

Moving forward

Crandall Canyon’s scars remain etched in people’s hearts a decade later, Gordon said, alongside those of accidents that picked off miners in ones or twos — like the one that took Jones — and major calamities such as the 1984 Wilberg Mine fire that claimed 27 miners’ lives.

“People who live in our area are strong, very strong,” Gordon said. “I mean strong emotionally and mentally, and they know how to pick up and go on because they know that one step forward is what they have to do.”

“Even the families that have been so devastated by the loss of their loved ones are starting to move forward, some a little slower than others, but nevertheless they’re moving forward,” she added. “Because that’s how life is.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake City) A memorial to six miners and three rescuers who died in the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster adorns the grounds next to the cemetery in Huntington.