On April 15, 1981, a mining disaster at the Dutch Creek No. 1 Mine outside of Redstone, Colorado, claimed the lives of 15 coal miners. A methane and coal dust explosion hit the 102 longwall development section of the mine operated by Mid-Continent Resources around 4 p.m.on a Wednesday afternoon.
On that spring day near Redstone, seven miners escaped the blast, 15 did not. The memory of that day, now 40 years later, still rests heavily on the hearts of family, friends and co-workers of the deceased coal miners. The tragedy also left a mark on the men who participated in a hopeful rescue mission that turned into a grim recovery duty.
Three mine rescue teams from the North Fork area were dispatched to the mine within hours of the tragedy to join the Mid-Continent teams already at the mine. One North Fork area team came from the U.S. Steel Mine in Somerset and two teams came from Colorado Westmoreland Mine in Paonia. Both teams arrived late in the evening with two additional teams from Utah arriving the following day.
The U.S Steel Mine rescue team members were Captain Donovan Story, Joe Voorhees, Rusty Tullio, Andy Pavlisick, Melvin McFarlane and John Weldon.
Colorado Westmoreland Team 1 members were Captain Don Emmos, Mark Branson, Pat Peck, Ray Melius and Link Derrick. Team 2 members were Captain Harry Galer, Leroy Martin, Fred Davenport, Kay Hallows, Mat Winey and Dwanye Schearer.
Ray Melius was among the Colorado Westmoreland rescuers who spent three days at the mine working to locate the missing 15 men. He recalls the moment he was notified to stand by, the teams arrival at the mine, the search and the sad ending on Friday, April 17.
“At about 5:45 p.m. I looked up and saw a maintenance truck coming towards me. I was told to stop what I was doing and head up to the bathhouse/office buildings immediately. I asked why and was told the general manager got a phone call from Mid-Continent coal mine that they just had a mine explosion and asked CWI to have our mine rescue teams standby in case they need us. I dropped what I was doing and headed up to the safety room and get the Drager BG 174, a self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) ready to go. My heart sank and my adrenaline started to pump. At about 6:30 p.m all the team members were assembled and we were heading towards Redstone,” Melius recalled, 40 years later.
“At about 7:30 to 8 p.m we arrived at Redstone and to the road to the Mid-Continent mines. We headed up the 9 or 10 miles to the mine site. Around 8:45 or 9 p.m we were told to wait at a staging area and we waited and waited and waited. I was scared, nervous, anxious, didn’t know what caused the explosion, didn’t know what to expect and was worried if there might be a second explosion. We double checked our SCBAs, checked each other’s well being and talked about our training and situations that we could encounter when and if we went underground,” Melius continued.
After waiting for nearly three hours, CWI’s team 1 went into the mine wearing the SCBA gear they had packed for the rescue mission. The Mid-Continent rescue team was the first to enter the mine around 7:30 p.m.
“I was on CWI’s team 1 and we entered the mine at 11:50 p.m the night of the accident. We rode a cable car in about 3,000 feet then walked and searched for two and half hours. We walked another 1,000 feet and did not see anyone but saw how powerful the explosion was. We came out of the mine and CWI’s team 2 went in for another three hours. They searched for miners and then started building ventilation stoppings. They came out and we went to the Redstone Inn and rested for a day. The next day, we were asked to go back to the mine to bag eight bodies. I helped bag four of the bodies and carried them 750 feet up a 15 degree slope to the rail car where they were brought to the surface.”
In the early morning light of April 17, 1981, all 15 deceased miners were brought to the surface by recovery workers. The names of the deceased miners who lost their lives are John Ayala (40); Kyle Delano Cook (43); Kelly Bert Greene (25); William Eugene Guthrie (32); Richard Allen Lincoln (22); Daniel Bryan Litwiller (21); Terry E. Lucero (28); Loren Herbert Mead (35); Ronald Westley Patch (34); Hugh William Pierce Jr. (19); Robert Harold Ragle (29); John Arthur Rhodes (29); Glen William Sharp (31); Brett James Tucker (30) and Thomas N. Vetter (24).
When asked how the event has impacted his life, Melius said, “The impact on me and my life was how quickly life can change and how poor maintenance on mining equipment can cause an explosion that did so much devastation. After the accident I took my electrical, maintenance, and permissibility work much more seriously and double check my work. I also took the safety of the people around more seriously as well as my safety.”
“A coal mine can be a dangerous place to work but driving on state route 92 or Highway 133 can be just as dangerous, so my safety awareness factor went up a 1,000%,” he said.
Shortly after the mine accident near Redstone, a group of North Fork area citizens representing the Colorado Westmoreland mine in Paonia and the U.S. Steel Mine in Somerset met with the Paonia Town Council on July 28, 1981, to discuss putting up a statue and a plaque to honor miners lost in similar disasters in the area.
Reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the Dutch Creek No. 1 Mine disaster, Melius said, “The teams I was a part of was something I was very proud to do. And I am also thankful for the support and sacrifice of our families, friends, neighbors and the people in the North Fork Valley that supported the effort and sacrifice of the mine rescue teams that took part in the search, rescue, and then recovery.”
Throughout 1981 and 1982 funds were raised to cover the $15,000 for the 6 foot 8 inch bronze sculpture of a proud miner created by artist Gary Prazen from Utah. Among the mines making donations were the Colorado Westmorland Mine, Bear Coal Mine, U.S. Steel Mine at Somerset, West Elk Mine, Western Slope Carbon Coal Mine and the Blue Ribbon Mine. The United Mine Workers Union donated $5,000. In addition, miners raised funds through Mine Rescue Contests and individual donations were also accepted.
The statue was installed at the Paonia Town Park on Nov. 3, 1982, with the official dedication taking place on a rainy Memorial Day on May 30, 1983. In spite of the rain nearly 100 people attended the dedication. There were 62 names listed on the plaque at the time of the dedication.
Nearly 35 years later, a Paonia trustee presented a proposal for upgrades to park’s corner where the miner’s statue is located. A committee asked that the 40- by 55-foot corner of the park be designated as the official park entrance.
The plan later grew to include two memorial walls with over 100 plaques from area contributors. Both the Miners’ Plaza Memorial Wall and Miner’s Statue were honored with a dedication of the wall and rededication of the statue as part of the 73rd Cherry Day’s celebration in 2019.
While there are over 65 names on the plaque at the base of Miner’s Statue honoring area miners who lost their lives, none of the names of the miners that originally inspired the statue are present.