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Calaveras Copper Mine Cave-in

Copperopolis, Calaveras County, California
September 4, 1929
No. Killed - 5

A cave on the 1,550 stope resulted in the loss of five lives and serious injury to a sixth miner.  The stope had not been worked for approximately 27 months.

Normal blasting in adjacent stopes probably loosened the ore and the walls more than would have been the case if water had not been seeping through for so long an idle period.  A combination of the two conditions probably reduced the friction between the walls and the ore until the latter dropped.

Historical Summary of Mine Disasters in the United States - Volume III

5 Believed Dead Under Mine Rocks
Oakland Tribune, California
September 5, 1929

Copperopolis, Sept. 5. -- With certain rescue less than half an hour away, after scores of miners had worked all night to reach him and had even given him food, drink and medical attention, Jose Mendez, one of six miners trapped in a slope off the 1350-foot level of the Calaveras Copper Mine by a cave-in yesterday, died at 6 o'clock this morning.

One man, Onopre Valla, the first to be reached, is still alive, although desperately injured.  He was taken out yesterday within three hours of the cave-in.

Known dead are:
  • Joe Mendez, 37
  • Ygnacio Felix, 26
Bodies of these two men have been retrieved from the tomb of horror in which they were crushed to death.

Those still entombed and believed dead are:
  • Ed Bixler, 26
  • J. King, 27
  • Gonzalo Gonzalez, 20
Felix, only one of the six trapped men known to have been married, has a wife and seven children living at Matape, Honora, Mexico.

The body of Felix, badly crushed, was the first to be brought to the head of the mine shaft.  The body of Mendez, when finally extricated, revealed mute evidence of the tortures he must have suffered while men toiled in vain to release him.  He was lying face down with his right leg thrust up in the air and pinioned between a rock and a timber.  The leg was literally crushed to a pulp by the mighty pressure, and the timber had to be sawed through before his body could be freed.

Coroner John Gardella of San Andreas and Deputy Coroner John H. Casley of Angels Camp took charge of the bodies.  Almost immediately after the slide which dropped into a slope 7,350-feet below the ground yesterday noon had stopped, miners set themselves at the grim task of rescuing their fellow workers.

Driving a shaft into the loose rock and debris and timbering as they went, forcing ahead a narrow passageway so small that only two men could work in it at a time, the miners labored more than three hours before they found Valle.  He had been only partly caught by the force of the slide and knocked down.  Dragged out from among crushing rocks and dirt which flowed ever downward, suffocating and blinding him, Valle was rushed to the surface and taken to St. Joseph's Hospital, Stockton.  He is suffering from a fractured pelvis, fractures of both legs, and other injuries.  He is given only a fighting chance to live.

Then the miners started on, working in gangs of 20 with each pair staying at their task only five minutes each.

Within an hour after finding Valle they heard a muffled voice calling to them.  It was the voice of Mendez.  With redoubled efforts his friends pulled out the rocks and rubble.  They shouted encouragingly at him.  And after it seeming age which was in reality but two more hours, they found him.

He was wedged into a V-like cavity, with two huge rocks, one eight feet in distance, pressing him down into his prison.  He was jammed down into so small a space that, while his hips were up, his head and shoulders were down.  One arm was pinioned straight above his head, and the other was held out at right angles from his body.

By 11 o'clock last night Mendez had been uncovered to the hips.  He was moaning with agony from the pressure of the rocks and the company physician, Dr. George P. Cosper, was called.

Dr. Cosper crawled through the tiny tunnel and administered a hypodermic to the trapped man to ease the pain.  He tried to make an examination to determine the extent of Mendezs' injuries, but was unable to do so.

Mendez more cheerful after the opiate had deadened the pain, called for water, but this they could not give him because of the downward position of his head.  Later the weight above him was lifted a trifle, however.

He said he was hungry and was given coffee and a sandwich, which he ate with relish.

This was followed by another mug of coffee and another sandwich.  Mendez, his hunger appeased, had recovered his spirits, and even essayed a joke or two with his rescuers.

But the delays were heartbreaking.  Once it was believed the task was ended, only to find that his feet were caught.

The rescuers had to clear away beneath the cavity in which he was trapped to free his feet.  They had to carefully move away surrounding debris to take the killing pressure off his body.

And at 6 o'clock this morning, just when it was thought he could be removed within a few minutes, Mendez shut his eyes.  He was dead.

Within reaching distance of Mendez, the searchers, in trying to free him, came upon the feet of another body, mute evidence, so the miners believe, of what awaits them ahead.  The body was that of Felix.

Directing the work of rescue underground are the shift bosses, Merle Mercer and Steve Belgren.  Belgren, who gave the alarm, was in the slope five minutes before the slide rushed down upon the men.
"If the others are where we think they are, we'll have the bodies all out sometime today," mine officials declared.  "There are some evidences, however, that they tried to run from the slide, and if they are scattered it may take a week to find them."
The work of rescue was pushed ahead with but a moment's delay after the death of Mendez.

C. H. Fry, inspector, and F. L. Lowell, engineer, both representatives of the state accident commission, were on the scene of the disaster.

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