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Carbondale’s deep scar

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Saturday is the 25-year anniversary of an explosion that killed 15 coal miners near Redstone and broke a piece of Carbondale’s heart.The blast in Mid-Continent Resource’s Dutch Creek No. 1 mine hit shortly after a swing shift went to work. That mine, and three others, are in an area known as Coal Basin, about eight miles west of Redstone.Rich Gilmore of Carbondale was a 38-year-old supervisor at the time on the swing shift in Dutch Creek No. 3 mine about a quarter-mile away. On Thursday he recalled getting a call that he had to pull his men out because “something drastic happened in the 1 mine.”The problem was apparent once they reached the surface. “We saw the smoke and knew right away what happened,” he said.An investigation by federal agencies in the months that followed concluded that a spark from a defective headlamp on a piece of machinery called a continuous miner touched off methane gas.Twenty-two men were in the mine at the time. Three were near the mine entrance and escaped unharmed. Four who were between the entrance and the site of the underground explosion suffered injuries but survived.

The 15 victims were between ages 20 and 40. Most of them were family men in their late 20s and early 30s. “I knew all of them,” Gilmore said. “Ron Patch was a real good friend of mine.”Gilmore was on the recovery team that brought the bodies out. The site was roughly three-fourths of a mile down from the entrance and a half-mile into the mountainside. The mine at that point was about 20 feet wide and 9 feet high, he recalled.The explosion threw the victims into positions that caused some veteran miners to question the federal investigators’ conclusions, but that’s water under the bridge, Gilmore said.Carbondale residents were stunned, said Gene Schilling, the current police chief who was a 29-year-old supervisor on a graveyard shift at the time of the accident. Virtually everyone in town knew one of the men or knew their families, he said.A previous gas explosion in the same mine killed nine men in December 1965.The scenes of a community in mourning that became so familiar to the country this January after the Sago coal mine disaster killed 12 near Tallmansville, W.Va., were similar to what Carbondale and Redstone experienced 25 years ago. There were candlelight vigils, funeral and memorial services that drew hundreds and benefits for the families throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.”We had a hard time,” Gilmore said.The investigation and restoration closed the No. 1 mine for several months but work resumed immediately in the other mines. “A lot of guys quit after that,” Gilmore said.Mining was in his blood, so he wasn’t unnerved by going back underground after the accident. Gilmore had previously worked in the molybdenum mines in Climax and in the tunnels of the Hunter-Fryingpan water diversion project. For many miners who stuck with the work, the danger was part of the allure.

“When you went in, you never knew what was going to happen that day,” Gilmore said. “I treated it, and most miners did, like it could be my last day.”Schilling and Gilmore both said the pay and benefits were good. Schilling had been working with the company for seven years by April 1981. Gilmore started with the company in 1970. Mid-Continent Resources employed about 400 people at the time of the accident, according to estimates made then by company officials. About half worked underground in the mines.

The company never fully recovered after the accident, nor did Carbondale’s economy for several years. “[Coal mining] was pretty much the lifeblood of the town at that time,” said Schilling, who was among scores of workers laid off soon after the disaster.Mid-Continent’s slow descent ended in 1991, when the coal mines closed. Coal Basin has been reclaimed and a land swap placed most of the lands in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service.Gilmore was with the company until 1991. He still misses mining, especially because of the people. “We were a close-knit family up there,” he said.It’s sad, he said, that so few current residents realize that coal mining was the foundation of Carbondale, along with ranching.”They’ve just about forgot about coal mining,” he said.A rededication ceremony of Carbondale’s Miners’ Park, which was dedicated in 1982, will take place April 22. The ceremony, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., will be held in conjunction with a planting of trees for Arbor Day.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.comThe victimsThe men who died in the 1981 Dutch Creek mine accident were:John Ayala, 40, CarbondaleKyle Cook, 33, SiltKelly Grene, 25,New CastleWilliam Guthrie, 32, Glenwood SpringsRichard Lincoln, 22, Glenwood SpringsDaniel Litwiller, 21, Glenwood SpringsTerry Lucero, 28, Glenwood SpringsLoren Mead, 35, RifleRonald Patch, 34, CarbondaleHugh Pierce Jr., 20, Glenwood SpringsRobert Ragle, 29, MarbleJohn Rhodes, 29, CarbondaleGlen Sharp, 31, El JebelBrett Tucker, 30, CarbondaleThomas Vetter, 24, Glenwood Springs


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