Light & Shadow #2

A drill operator in Sunshine Mine — Kellogg, Idaho — 1973

Inner Earth. Its clutches are hot, wet, and dark. Once down there, it may not let go.

In May 1972 a fire broke out underground at the Sunshine Mine and 91 men died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Only two survived and were rescued after 8 days down below. The fire was the second deadliest hard-rock mining disaster in U.S. history.

A friend back then was a mining engineering major at the University of Idaho and I worked in the university photo department. The mine had just reopened after the fire a year prior, and Jan’s connections were such that we had an opportunity for a tour. We had a grand idea to do a story for National Geographic.

Many details have faded into five decades of history, but I remember this clearly — none of it gave me the desire to be a miner. I’m glad to have grown up where I did — there is something about mining towns that makes them hard to escape.

A steel cage hanging from a cable dropped us a few thousand feet straight down and we exited into a ‘lobby’ of sorts. It was stiflingly hot. My clothes and skin were immediately soaked from the humidity. I prefer that my heat be dry.

From there we walked ankle-deep in water through a dark maze of tunnels to where the actual mining took place. I remember the relief of standing near a giant ventilation fan pulling fresh air in from above.

An indispensable requirement of photography is light. There was none, save that from the mining lamps, and that barely enough to focus a camera. Were it not for the strobe I had, few pictures would have been made that day.

The truth is, most were useless. It’s a good thing our story idea was just a pipe dream because National Geographic would have been sorely disappointed. But, as I would learn throughout my career, even the most difficult conditions would give you SOMETHING if you kept your wits and worked at it.

I came away from my foray into the belly of the planet with this picture of a drill operator and sympathy for what some must endure while earning their wage.

4 thoughts on “Light & Shadow #2”

  1. Randy, I love the combination of the photograph and the story. Amazing photograph. Your writing gives it so much more depth – all captured in the photograph. Looking at the photograph again, I see how the operator’s shirt is stuck to his body and his skin glistens with perspiration. I am very excited about your book!!!

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