55 years ago: The mine blast that killed 18

By Doug McMurdo • The Times-Independent

Robert Bobo never met his father. He knew his dad was one of 18 miners who died Aug. 27, 1963 in the Cane Creek potash mine explosion, and he learned whatever his mother told him as the years rolled by.

On Monday night at the Grand Center, many of the blanks were filled in for Bobo where author Kymberly Mele discussed her book, “Disaster at Cane Creek.” Bobo, now 54, and his wife traveled to Moab from their home in Beckville, Texas, specifically to meet Mele and listen to her presentation.

Bobo’s dad, also named Robert, and mother lived at the Shady Rest trailer court in Moab. There were others who lived in town and elsewhere in Utah, and some were Canadian.

Early in Mele’s discussion she displayed a photograph of the 18 who were killed. Bobo walked to the wall and took a good long look at the faces that stared back at him. Mele’s father, Donald Hanna, was one of seven miners who survived the methane blast, which occurred when the 25-man crew was 3,000 feet underground at the potash mine roughly 20 miles west of Moab.

Mele told the audience at the Grand Center on Monday, the 55th observance of the tragedy, that she was able to contact relatives of most of the miners through social media during the course of documenting the tragedy. Writing the book was a journey, one she took while raising six children.

She became emotional in explaining how she was advised, “If it makes you cry, your readers will cry. If it makes you laugh, it will make your readers laugh.

“It’s a very dramatic story,” she said. “I first became interested in writing the book at a mine rescue competition in Reno. It was so amazing how they set up disaster scenarios.” The “really fascinating” process of the competition, particularly how the rescuers altered their approach each time the facts in front of them changed, inspired the Price resident to write the book.

Her first stop was a trip to Wyoming, where her father’s scrapbook was located. She read through the news stories her father kept and they were indeed dramatic. Here’s an excerpt from The Associated Press in a story published in the Aug. 30, 1963 edition of the Ogden Standard-Examiner:

CREWS HOLD UP

RESCUE ATTEMPTS TO ESTABLISH FRESH AIR POCKET.

8 DEAD FOUND IN MINE; FIRST BODY REMOVED.

Moab, Utah (AP) – Attempts to reach five reported survivors of a potash mine explosion were temporarily suspended today to establish a fresh air pocket at the base of a 2,700-foot mine shaft.

State Mine Commissioner Casper Nelson said work on the air base may take 24 hours, and during that time rescuers would not go into the tunnels.

Nelson’s announcement followed the finding of eight bodies Wednesday night, dimming the hope of tired, grimy rescue workers, who had pushed their search since the explosion Tuesday afternoon. One body was brought up today.

The first body was removed from the mine shaft early today, shielded from the crowd by blankets held by rescue workers.

The eight dead were not identified immediately, and there were reliable reports the first body brought out was too badly disfigured for immediate identification. Nature of the disfigurement was not disclosed.

The blast trapped 25 men in Texas Gulf Sulphur Co.’s $35 million potash mine. Two were rescued Wednesday in good condition …

Mele employed historic events to provide a timeline for the audience to consider. She mentioned President John F. Kennedy, whose assassination would occur roughly three months later. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. famed “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered the next day, Aug. 28, 1963. And Aug. 29, she noted, was the day her father and four others walked out of the drift. Ten of the dead also were located that day. Accounts at the time indicated some of the men died instantly – some of the bodies were unrecognizable – and others died later of carbon monoxide exposure.

Making eye contact with Bobo and others in the audience, Mele said writing the book connected her to the disaster in ways she didn’t expect, with a particular connection to the relatives of those who were there that day.

Drawing a deep breath, she said, “Your fathers would be proud of you.”