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John Hollenhorst ReportingTwenty years ago it began with an electric spark from a malfunctioning compressor. Within hours, 27 people were dead in the most disastrous mine fire in Utah history. Today in Utah's coal country hundreds of people gathered to remember those who died. For most Utahns, the Wilberg Mine Fire is hard to forget. The disaster struck just before Christmas twenty years ago and altered hundreds of lives forever.
A large crowd turned out for a very somber event today. Hundreds of people attended, some of whom lost loved ones and others who share the pain and recognition of the terrible dangers faced by those who work underground.
That day 20 years ago is burned into the memory of many families in coal-country. Dense toxic smoke poured from the mine, a smoke signal from hell, deep underground, where more than two dozen people were trapped.
Rescuer, December 1984: “They’re smart guys, they know what to do, they’re trained.”
At the low-key 20th anniversary memorial, politicians and union leaders recalled the agony of waiting, shared by the entire state of Utah.
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-2nd: "We all prayed for a miracle. And in homes decorated for Christmas, people waited hours for any word, clinging to any hope that the trapped miners were alive."
A monument in Emery County makes it clear there was not a happy Christmas that year.
December 1994: “It’s my sad duty to inform you that nine bodies have been recovered.”
The fire was so intense and did so much damage inside the mine that it was nearly a full year before the last of the 27 bodies were recovered.
They lit 27 candles to honor 26 men and one woman who died. Speakers noted the terrible toll the coal industry has taken on its workers -- 100,000 dead in accidents in the last century. 100,000 more, victims of black lung disease.
Cecil Roberts, Int'l President, United Mine Workers: “So 200,000 families have been touched by tragedy so our nation can prosper.”
They said the Wilberg victims did not die in vain.
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-2nd: “What we learned from that tragedy paved the way for mining reforms that make it safer for the men and women working in the mines today.”
Many of the miners left behind children, and now grandchildren, for whom Christmas will always have a bitter taste.
Janice Carter, Miner's Widow: “It’s not joyous anymore. I mean it’s joyous to see the grandkids open their gifts and stuff, but it just seems like a big part of the family is missing.”