Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Deep Dark by Gregg Olsen


Rating: (Recommended)




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Gregg Olsen presents a suspenseful account of the 1972 disaster at the Sunshine Silver Mine in his new book, The Deep Dark. Olsen takes readers through the sequences of time and mine level from the perspective of survivors and the 91 miners who died. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter Eleven, pp. 76-79:



Sunshine Mine Yard


As a general practice, the doors to Sunshine’s milling operation were kept open to let fresh air into the stifling building that sat on the rocky mountainside, just west of the men’s dry house. The state-of-the-art mill used crushing, grinding, flotation, and filtering techniques to concen­trate silver, lead, and copper ores for shipping to smelters in Montana and Washington. The milling process turned the stony rubble hauled from Sunshine into the consistency of powdered sugar.


A little after noontime the mill crew smelled something burning, but a quick check showed their machinery in good order. Someone called out that smoke was coming out of Sunshine’s ventilation shaft. A group went to look, but the wind had shifted and the smoke had dissipated. The crew shut the doors and everyone returned to work.


On the first floor of the engineering building, stenographer Richelle Pherigo, twenty-two, took over as relief switchboard operator. Pherigo sat behind the small console and answered the mundane calls that came in at that hour—wives wanting to get messages to husbands and inquiries from men looking for the hiring office. Not long after she took her seat, an excited voice came from underground.


“Call down to Marvin at the North Shore! We need him and the rest back here, right away. Looks like we got a fire in the mine.”


Marvin was Marvin Chase, the mine manager. He and the company’s top executives—including the New York owners—were addressing Sunshine shareholders forty miles away at the nicest place in the district, the North Shore Resort, overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene—the aquatic jewel of the panhandle.


The mine itself had come off a good production year—though the com­pany had lost more than a million dollars on paper due to write-offs and other vague financial hocus-pocus. Nevertheless, shareholders, large and small, assembled in a banquet room to look toward the future. There were fears that the company was running in the direction of bankruptcy, pulling money from operations and investing in ill-conceived ventures that only served to make the board of directors richer. Those fears were not unjustified. Turning a deaf ear to such subjects, executives announced plans for addi­tional ore exploration in the coming months, as well as the continuation of the record-breaking retrieval of the high-grade ore that made Sunshine leg­endary in the annals of mining. Things had been good for the mine in 1971, they said, and they were just about to get better.


The urgent message was a jolt, and Richelle Pherigo looked outside. Smoke rose in the sky, dark and columnar~ like the trail of a rocket. She dialed the resort and was connected to personnel director Jim Farris. She explained the importance of reaching Chase.


“He can’t be disturbed,” Farris said.


His response took Pherigo aback.


“Well, we got a fire here and he needs to call back to the mine,” she said.


Farris promised to pass on the message, and Pherigo and the others expected an immediate call-back. But none came. The column of smoke became blacker and blacker~ now shooting straight up, like one of those tall, black office buildings in some city far from the district. An agonizing half hour later, there still had been no response from the shareholders’ meeting. From her front-row seat, Pherigo saw men swarming the yard. Shifters were breathing down her neck to get in touch with Chase or Al Walkup, the mine superintendent. Anyone who had some authority


Sitting at her desk in accounts payable, clerk Linda Daugherty, twenty­-four, could hear the buzz as the remaining office people continued in vain to reach Chase or Walkup. The way she understood it, the guys underground wanted to evacuate, but they wanted the go-ahead from the top.


No one, she thought, wanted to evacuate unless it was a real emergency. No one wanted to lose an afternoon’s production.



Sunshine employees had no gripe with mine manager Marvin Chase, but after years of abuse at the hands of the revolving door of man­agers, the office employees, who paid the bills and handled the voluminous paperwork of the state and federal governments, had been beaten down so many times that they were unsure and a little cowed. The previous manager, Tom McManus, a former linotype machine manufacturing plant manager, had been sent to Big Creek by the out-of-town owners. He quickly estab­lished himself as the manager from hell. Not only was McManus a tyrant and a mean-spirited eccentric, he didn’t think staff people were worth a damn. All could easily be replaced. Engineers, he habitually ranted, were “a dime a dozen.” He also remarked that he didn’t see the value of a mine safety pro­gram. The effort stole profits from the bottom line.


Behind his back, McManus was called Black Mac, less for his taste in clothing—the shiny black suit that he always wore, his fly once fastened shut with a safety pin—than for his insistence that all lights be turned off unless absolutely necessary Under the McManus regime, pens were locked in the safe and issued only by sign-out. A single pen was to be used until its ink was exhausted. When it ran dry, an employee took it to McManus’s secretary and she tested it on a legal pad to ensure that it was dead before issuing a new one. Pity the poor clerk who discovered that someone had walked off with her pen. She’d be reduced to tears and left to beg for a new one. Black Mac thought the hiring office’s water fountain was “wasting water” and ordered it disconnected. The tube lights in the office were so antiquated that when they were shut off at his insistence, they’d cease to function when turned on again. It got so bad that the electrician eventually moved into the office. In addition to humiliating the staff for personal sport, Black Mac could be unforgivably cruel. He once fired a clerk for taking the day off to attend her nephew’s funeral. Another woman was given her walking papers because McManus consider her ample breasts a “distraction” to mine engineers and geologists.


Not until the fall of 1969, when they signed union cards, did the staff stand up to the little dictator. McManus refused to negotiate, and in February 1970 the emboldened office workers staged a strike. It lasted less than a day. The staff had feared the miners wouldn’t be supportive. But miners coming for their shifts saw the office workers’ signs and turned around. Talks with man­agement, and a speedy resolution, took a sudden priority.


Six months later, when McManus was ousted, it was as if Dorothy had van­quished the Wicked Witch of the West. The McManus legacy was not how well he managed operations, but how frightened and damaged were the peo­ple who had cowered in his presence. Even with nice guy Marvin Chase in charge, the anxiety never went away. Fear lingered. When the events of May 2, 1972, began, no one thought he had the power to do a thing about it. No one wanted to lose his job by calling for an evacuation.



It fell on the shoulders of an accountant to give in to what was as risky as it was right—the official evacuation order from topside. He wasn’t management, and he sat in an office that had once kept pens in the safe; the likes of such autonomy had seldom been seen. Few in the office were sure what was going on underground and what, if any, evacuation plan was already under way. Some assumed the source of the smoke was above 2700, a level well above where most of the men worked. They didn’t think smoke could get down to 3100 without the men knowing well in advance.


Pherigo rang the North Shore for the third time. Superintendent Walkup answered, and she patched him through to a shifter. Walkup, a bear of a man with a foghorn voice, said he’d return to the mine right away He was unruffled. All mines had little blazes. There was always more smoke than fire.


Executives will find the impact of past management on workers to be frightening and real, adding to the disaster described in The Deep Dark. In a corporate culture rooted in fear, the avoidance of decisions can lead to disaster.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2005 issue of Executive Times


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