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Texas Gulf Sulphur Company
Potash Division
Cane Creek Mine Explosion

Moab, Grand County, Utah
August 27, 1963
No. Killed - 18

Disaster at Cane Creek
Disaster at Cane Creek
by Kymberly Mele
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USBM Final Investigation Report  (2.9 Mb)  PDF Format
Ogden Standard-Examiner News Articles
Successful Rescue

Three men erected a barricade near the face of 2 south and died behind it.  Seven other men erected a barricade in 3U drift; 2 of these men left the barricade and traveled to the shaft station where they were met by a rescue crew and brought to the surface at 11:55 a.m., August 28, about 19 hours after the explosion occurred.

The other 5 men remained behind the barricade until a recovery crew contacted them and they reached the surface without assistance at 6:30 p.m., August 29, about 50 hours after the explosion.  A surface employee received minor injuries and was hospitalized.

A gas explosion occurred in the Cane Creek mine about 4:40 p.m., Tuesday, August 27, 1963.  Twenty-five men were underground at the time; 18 died from the flame, forces, or asphyxiation.

Bureau of Mines investigators believe the explosion originated in the shop area where an explosive mixture of combustible gases was ignited by electrical arcs or sparks, open flame, or heated metal surfaces.  Forces of the explosion extended to the shaft station, up the shaft to the surface, and throughout the greater part of 2 south and 3U drifts.

General Information

The Cane Creek mine, Potash Division of the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company is in Grand County about 20 miles southwest of Moab, Utah, by road, and is reached by paved State Highway 279.  The mine is served by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, and is being developed on State and Federal land.

The mine is in the development stage and production of ore has not been started.  A contract for the sinking of the shaft and driving the development drifts in waste to the ore body was given to the Harrison International, Incorporated, of Miami, Florida, and practically all work being done at the time of the explosion was by the contractor.  Likewise, most underground employees were the contractor's.

The work schedule was 7 days a week, 3 shifts a day.  The average underground employment for Harrison International, Incorporated was 80 men, divided approximately into 30 men on day shift and 25 men each on swing and graveyard shifts.  Engineering and maintenance of some equipment was provided by Texas Gulf Sulphur Company.  There were many occasions for personnel of the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company to enter the mine, such as for ventilation checks, temperature readings, gas testing, and for collecting other pertinent data.  Texas Gulf men worked underground in the shop regularly on 2 shifts daily.

A regular Federal inspection of this mine was made November 28-29, 1961, when the shaft was at a depth of 840 feet.  In addition, four separate investigations of fatal accidents were made by Bureau of Mines personnel prior to the explosion.

Examination of the entire mine after the disaster showed that the explosion originated in the shop area.  All evidence indicated that the combustible gas ignited in the shop area was released at the face of 2 south drift when the round of shots were fired therein at 4:20 p.m.

As mentioned previously, the velocity of the air moving from 2 south drift to the shaft would move the combustible gas from the face of 2 south to the shop area at a suitable rate of flow to initiate the explosion in the shop area at 4:40 p.m.  Ignition of the combustible gas in the shop area might have and easily could have been from an electric arc or spark, an open flame, or a heated exhaust manifold on a shuttle car.

Some of the more likely ignition sources were:
  • Arcs or sparks from the battery-charging clamps being placed on or removed from the battery terminals on the No. 5 shuttle car, the switch on the power panel and the shop being opened or closed, the power cable to the battery charger being placed in the power outlet, or an electric circuit on a shuttle car or from equipment or circuits in the shop area.

  • An open flame such as from a match or cigarette lighter or from a cutting torch.

  • Heated surfaces such as the filaments in electric light bulbs or an exhaust manifold on a shuttle car.  The possibility that the combustible gas that was ignited could have come from a source other than liberation from the strata after blasting in 2 south drift was recognized.  All such sources were investigated thoroughly, including the possibility that acetylene was the combustible gas, but there was no evidence found to support such possibilities, and analyses of dusts and residues after the explosion indicated that the combustible gas ignited had not been acetylene.
Damage was confined generally to the shaft, shaft structures on the surface, and the immediate areas of the shaft station and shop areas.  Elsewhere, underground damage was slight.

Factors Preventing Spread of Explosion

This disaster was strictly a gas explosion, and all available fuel (mixture of combustible gas and air) was ignited.  Mine dusts are not explosive and other materials, such as oils and explosives, that might have propagated the explosion were not ignited.

Summary of Evidence

Conditions observed in the mine during recovery operations and the investigation that followed, together with information made available during interrogation and discussions with officials and employees of the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company and Harrison International, Incorporated provided evidence as to cause and origin of explosion.

The evidence from which the conclusions of the Bureau of Mines investigators are drawn are summarized as follows:
  • One explosion occurred in which only combustible gas was involved.

  • The explosion occurred at 4:40 p.m., August 27, 1963.  This time was given by an underground official of the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company, who survived the explosion and was corroborated by an employee of Harrison International, Incorporated, who was on the surface at the time.

  • All victims in the vicinity of the shop and shaft station and two victims in 2 south drift were killed instantly.  Three men in the 2 south face area and three others in 3U drift died later of asphyxiation.

  • The 2 south face was blasted 20 minutes prior to the explosion.

  • Combustible gas was liberated from the 2 south face.  Sample No. 1289, collected August 31, 1963 in the face of 2 south after the explosion, contained 6.7 percent total hydrocarbons composed of 4.74 percent methane, 1.1 percent ethane, 0.5 percent propane, 0.24 percent butanes, and 0.12 percent pentanes.

  • Gas had been emitted with sufficient pressure during blast hole drilling in shale to eject the drill with force and push the drill and operator back 20 feet from the face.  Also, gas was released occasionally from fractures encountered in the strata during mining operations.

  • The calculated velocity of return air current in 2 south was adequate to carry combustible gas released at 2 south face after blasting at 4:20 p.m. to the shop at the time of explosion.

  • A fan, operated openly in the shop area, was capable of drawing some of the return air from 2 south and recirculating it within the shop.

  • Failure to find soot or low density carbon particles during comprehensive tests made of samples of fine solid materials collected in the shop indicates that acetylene did not enter into the explosion.

  • There was no electrical face equipment in use at the time of the explosion.  Rock bolting with compressed-air stoppers was in progress in the face of 3U drift, and the mobile loader was parked about 125 feet from the face in 2 south; no blasted rock had been loaded out.

  • Power circuits and the 110-volt lighting system in the shop were energized.

  • A permissible flame safety lamp was left hanging (between shifts) in the shop area.  Laboratory examination of this lamp indicates that the lamp was not lighted at the time of the explosion.

  • Some persons using the permissible flame safety lamps had not been trained adequately in their use as gas-testing instruments.

  • Some smoking continued in the mine regardless of the "No Smoking" rule instituted following the July 31, 1963, gas ignition.  A search program to dissuade persons from carrying smoker's articles underground had not been instituted.

  • Not all the permissible electric face equipment was maintained in permissible condition.

  • Diesel shuttle cars approved for use in nongassy noncoal mines were used in the mine.
Cause of Explosion

The disaster was caused by the ignition of combustible gas in the shop area by electric arcs or sparks, open flame, or heated metal surfaces.  The gas was liberated from blasting in the face of 2 south drift, and was carried by return air toward the shop.  The fan, operated openly in the shop area, drew some of the gas-laden return air from 2 south into the shop and then recirculated it.

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

Crews Hold Up Rescue Attempts to Establish Fresh Air Pocket
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Utah
August 29, 1963

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.

They said five of their companions were alive after the blast, barricaded behind debris about 2,100 feet into one of two tunnels extending laterally and downward from the main shaft.

Fate of the 19 remaining miners was unknown.  Nelson blamed carbon monoxide for the miners' deaths.  "We are not abandoning hope," Nelson said.

"We have been unsuccessful in attempts to reach the five men believed to be alive behind a barricade ....  We plan to go back to our original plan of establishing a fresh air base at the bottom of the shaft from which we can work ....  We should have followed this procedure 24 hours ago," he added.

During the night, Nelson said rescue crews succeeded in restoring the compressed air line leading to the five barricaded miners.

"We're guessing it (the air) is going back to the five." he said.  "However, rescuers instructed to tap on the line have not received and answering sounds."

Frank Tipple, head of Texas Gulf's potash division, said of the general rescue situation: "It doesn't look good when you find eight bodies."

Another pressing problem was water rising in the main shaft.  But Tipple said the water was not backing up into the tunnels.  Electricians tried to start pumps to remove the water.

"It's like working in a heavy rain," June Crawford, chief engineer of Texas Gulf, said of the rescue operations.  Tipple said three bodies were found near the main shaft (the ones reported by the two rescued miners); three more 1,500 feet down the 3,000 foot long tunnel, and two more separately in smaller connecting tunnels near the main shaft.

After the initial success in rescuing Donald Hanna, 27, of Price, and Paul McKinney, 22, of Moab, rescuers were frustrated by a breakdown in communications, and also by gas, water, debris and other mechanical trouble.

The miners were trapped by the blast at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday.  Hanna, McKinney and the other five men were in the 3,000 foot tunnel.  Hanna said he heard a dynamite blast in a shorter, 2,700 foot funnel, then was knocked down by the concussion.

"I'm sure it was a methane gas explosion," he said.

Rescuers were lowered into the mine three or four at a time in a two-ton lift bucket.

Water, seeping from the sides of the shaft, almost drowned one rescuer when the bucket stalled for an hour.  It nearly filled with water.

Finally holes were punched in the bucket's bottom.

Then the communications system between the surface and rescuers failed.

There was no voice contact with the five men believed to have survived the explosion since Hanna and McKinney left them at 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Hanna said getting out of the mine was "just like Christmas when I was a little kid."

Hanna, McKinney and the other five built a blockade to protect themselves from the gas.  Then the pair went over it to find help and try to connect pipes for fresh air.

Hanna and McKinney were found 30 feet from the bottom of the main shaft in the longer tunnel.  The tunnels lead toward the rich potash deposits used in commercial fertilizer.

Five More Rescued in Moab Disaster; Death Toll Hits 18
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Utah
August 30, 1963

Moab, Utah (AP) -- Five more trapped miners were rescued alive and in good condition Thursday night, but 10 others were found dead.

The final toll was 18 killed.

Seven survived; two were rescued earlier.

The five found Thursday night were in surprisingly good condition in the same deep tunnel from which the other two escaped Wednesday morning, the day after 25 miners were caught 3,000 feet down by an explosion.

Eight men were already known dead when two rescue teams started a now-or-never search for the remaining 15 late in the afternoon.

Within 90 minutes, June Crawford, chief engineer of the Texas Gulf Sulphur Co., owner of the potash mine, announced emotionally: "Five survivors have been found in the east shaft.  The men are walking out of that drift!"

Then up they came by the lift, grimy but smiling, in such good condition there was little need of treatment.  And one of them, Grant Eslick, said, "Sure, I'm ready to go back to mining."

Three hours after the rescue, Crawford had to tell the tearful wives and parents still waiting by the mine what most of them had feared: The last 10 men in the other tunnel where the blast occurred were dead.

Amid some miners' charges that safety precautions were lax at the mine, plans were announced for a joint state-federal investigation starting Monday.  A state official said: "We'll subpoena and question everyone who might have anything to say."

The last five survivors owed their lives to the first two and their own makeshift barricades that kept out deadly gases while they awaited rescue.

When Paul McKinney and Donald Hanna started out the tunnel toward safety Wednesday, they came across a ruptured air line leading back to the other five.  They paused to fix it, weren't able to get the ends completely together, but came close.  It was enough.

Thomas Trueman of Toronto, Canada, propped himself up on one elbow in a hospital bed, turned to Hanna in the same room, and said: "You may have got us only a little air with that patch job on the line, but boy it was enough."  "It was the best we could do, Tom," Hanna replied.

Trueman said the trapped miners could only wait for the rescue they were certain would come.  But Eslick said it wasn't as simple as that.  "We were nearly hysterical at one point," he said.  "But fortunately it passed."

He apologized to his wife and daughter with: "I'm sorry that you all had to go through such an ordeal."

Eslick's daughter, Trudy, 20, laughed and said: "Dad, you look just about like you do when you come home from hunting."

Ironically, three of the victims might still be alive it they had joined the original seven in building the barricades far to the rear of the tunnel and away from the blast.

Hanna said the trio refused to join his crew in heading toward the rear of the tunnel.

Mrs. John Pinall, told the authorities her husband's body was too badly charred to identify, turned to a sheriff's deputy and commented bitterly: "Maybe next time they will put dog tags on them."  Then she burst into tears.

Criticism arose Thursday when rescue operations were suspended by trouble with air lines needed by the workers.

Most of the day was spent repairing the lines and Hanna and McKinney were sharply critical of some phases of the operation, blaming the state for a "lack of inspection."

In Washington, the Bureau of Mines ordered a federal probe and sent a team here.  Gov. George D. Clyde promised a state investigation.

Hanna and McKinney left their hospital beds when the rescue operations were suspended.  They wanted to go into the mine to assist workers, but the firm refused because of their ordeal.

Hanna claimed he hadn't seen a state inspector in the mine in the 18 months he had worked there.  "The state was responsible for not inspecting and enforcing state laws," he said.

"There was no safety program down there."

But Texas Gulf said supervisors inspected the mine daily for gas, ventilation and roof conditions.  Steve Hatsis, state mine inspector, said a state inspector had been assigned to the mine and that he had heard of nothing improper.

State records show 10 inspections had been made since May 24, 1961.  Three were investigations of fatal accidents.  There also was a fourth accident.

The U. S. Bureau of Mines said it also probed the four fatal accidents, and said three were preventable.  The bureau said the fourth involved an outburst of rock, which "is not entirely controllable."

But the bureau assigned three scientists to the mine to study and measure rock stresses.

"These three men had just come off shift before the explosion occurred and narrowly escaped with their own lives," the bureau said.

Casper A. Nelson, safety inspector for the Utah Industrial Commission, said some of the 18 victims apparently were killed instantly, others died later of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Bodies of three men were found with their heads in a ventilation pipe, a vain effort to get air.

Frank Tipple, general manager for Texas Gulf here, said bodies of the victims were so disfigured identification will be difficult.

Tipple rejected claims safety precautions were lax.  "I think we have maintained good safety regulations all along, and I think we'll tend to be even more careful after this," he said.

Names of 7 Survivors, 18 Victims
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Utah
August 30, 1963

Moab (UPI) -- The Texas Gulf Sulphur Company mine blast claimed 18 lives.  Seven men survived the Tuesday explosion.

The Survivors:
  • Grant H. Eslick, 47, Box 939, Moab, Utah
  • Charles Byrge, 39, Box 45, Helper, Utah
  • Robert June, 36, Moab, Formerly of Kansas
  • Thomas Trueman, 37, 35 Balliol St., Toronto, Ont., Canada
  • Donald Hanna, 26, 211 S. 5th W., Price, Utah
  • Paul McKinney, 22, Box 1183, Moab, Utah
  • Charles Clark, 27, 377 S. 3rd E., Moab, Utah
The Dead:
  • Lawrence Davidson, Box 1158, Moab, Utah
  • M. H. Christensen, Jr., 210 E. Second South, Moab, Utah
  • M. H. Christensen, Sr., Route 1, Helper, Utah
  • Clell Johnson, 345 Berkley Ave., Dragerton, Utah
  • Jess Fox, Orangeville, Utah
  • Fred Rowley, Route 1, Box 105A, Helper, Utah
  • John Tinall, Box 821, Moab, Utah
  • Jess Kasler, 38, Moab, Utah
  • Lamar Rushton, 34, Moab, Utah
  • Emeille Leblanc, 75 Axsmith, Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada
  • Wesley Barber, Box 175, Moab, Utah, formerly Elliot Lake, Ontario
  • P. Sviscu, Box 884, Grants, N.M.
  • Kenneth Milton, 43, Moab, Utah
  • Robert Bobo, Shady Rest Trailer Court, Moab, Utah
  • W. Huzil, Yorkton, Sask., Canada
  • J. N. Hollinger, 153 South 45th East, Moab, Utah
  • Keith Shear, 22, Dove Creek, Colo.
  • Rene Roy, 42, 275 Terrace Lawn, Northbay, Ont., Canada

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