PINEHURST, Idaho - Later this month, the Lucky Friday Mine in north Idaho will begin rehiring workers. It closed seven months ago for federally mandated safety improvements. Inspectors took a sharper look at the mine after a series of tragic accidents last year. Now, as the mine prepares to re-open, the family of one dead miner is speaking out for the first time. The family of Larry Marek told correspondent Jessica Robinson they believe the company still hasn’t taken responsibility for what happened.
To understand this story, you first need to know something about mining. And that is: miners work in pairs.
“Oh we check on each other just safety-wise, make sure you’re alright, because a lot of things can happen in mining. A tremendous amount of things,” says Mike Marek. His mining partner Larry was also his brother.
And on a cold day in April 2011, Mike was standing outside the Lucky Friday Mine when he heard his brother was gone forever. He could see Larry’s car still in the parking lot.
“Just to see his car sitting there with that snow on it and just knowing that he drove up there and never did get to get in his car and go home," Mike says. "Bad choices – bad choices were made and it cost him his life.”
Because Larry Marek was his mining partner, Mike Marek is now in an unusual position. Mike witnessed the accident that killed his brother. Not only that, he says, he knows what caused it.
The two brothers come from a mining family in north Idaho’s Silver Valley -- one of the most productive silver producing regions in the world. And after 30 years underground, Larry Marek was considered among the valley’s best.
Larry’s daughter Hayley remembers visiting him the weekend before his death.
“We were driving by the mine and talking about it," she recalls. "And I remember asking him, ‘Is it scary?’ and he kind of blows it off like ‘You just do it, you go to work.’”
Larry Marek was on his 12th year at the Lucky Friday Mine. The “Friday,” as it’s known, is owned by Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining. And for a long time, the Marek brothers didn’t have any complaints. But Mike Marek says in early 2011, that changed.
One day, Larry told Mike they were going to remove a certain pillar.
“My exact words? I said, ‘What the f--- for?’ And he said ‘Well that's what they want.' And I said 'God that's stupid.' That was the beginning of that stuff.”
Let's just pause here. Mike mentioned a “pillar.” To get an idea of what’s happening, imagine a house with only two rooms and a wall down the middle separating them. That’s the pillar he’s talking about. Normally, Mike would expect to go in and mine the ore out of the rooms separately. But in this case, the company decided to remove the wall. That made one really big room. And this house – its ceiling is made of several tons of solid rock and cement.
The day before the accident, Mike remembers walking into that big room – it’s actually called a stope – where Larry was working.
“He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m sitting here’ and I go, ‘I don't like this place.’ And he didn't say nothing for a long time. Then he goes, ‘Me neither.’”
Now here’s the part that Mike Marek says he wishes he could do over. Despite the Mareks’ concerns, they never lodged a formal complaint. In part, Mike worried it would land the brothers in a less lucrative position at the mine. Mike says Larry did question supervisors about the pillar one day, but he doesn’t remember who and the company has no record of it.
What we do know, is this: on April 15, their fears were confirmed. At around 5:30 p.m., more than a mile underground, Mike heard a noise and felt a rush of air.
“Like loud thuds like, ‘Vvoof, vvoof.’ And instantly it’s just dust. Couldn’t even see anything for like minutes. Then I went over there and … I seen it.”
A pile of broken rock, sand and cement. Federal investigators later calculated the fall was approximately 90 feet long, 20 feet wide and 30 feet high.
Mike started yelling.
“Screaming his name. And moving rocks with my hands, trying to throw them – unbury him. Beyond me why a person would try to do that," Mike says. "I think back and there was no way you could do that by hand, ever.”
Soon the entire Marek family rushed to the mine and spent the next nine days on cots and air mattresses, clinging to each update. For a time, rescuers had hoped Larry Marek might still be alive, but trapped.
Marek’s daughter Hayley says at first, the family wanted to believe that too and they put the cause of the accident out of their minds.
“I remember we even saying we’re not going to discuss that," she says. "It’s not an issue right now. It’s just getting him out and getting to him. And that can all come later. But I think a lot of people were angry. Because they knew what had happened and why it happened.”
“Second day, I started, ‘I want to know what this looks like,’” says Danny Marek, Larry Marek’s younger brother. Danny is also a miner in the Silver Valley. “I said I want to go over in the office and see the stope, the map of it. And I’ll tell you right now it took me probably 10 seconds to look at the stope and see the pillar they took out and knew they should have never took that out. That’s what got him.”
On the day before Easter, crews finally broke through to Larry Marek. They learned he had been dead the whole time, killed by blunt force trauma.
Federal investigators later concluded that the company had engaged in poor mining practices, including mining a stope that was too wide. But that investigation did not identify who made the decision to take out the pillar or whether supervisors recognized the same danger the Mareks saw.
More than a year after his death, the Marek family has come to believe that Larry was killed not by a mining accident, but by a bad decision – the decision to take out the pillar. Danny Marek says he can’t believe someone at Hecla didn’t see the risk ahead of time.
“And yeah I’m pissed at them," Danny says. "They did it for a little bit of ore in the middle of that pillar and it cost my brother his life over that. But yet they go on TV and act like they did nothing wrong. And they did.”
Last December, Hecla Mining held a press conference on the accident that killed Larry Marek. And here’s the key difference between the Marek family’s version of the accident and the company’s: To the Mareks, the possibility of a fall was obvious from the beginning. But Hecla President and CEO Phil Baker told reporters company managers had no idea there was a problem.
“I mean the way this was designed, you would have expected it to stay in place," Baker said in the press conference. "No one is absolutely sure what happened.”
Baker declined speak on tape for this story. But he did sit down for an interview. He told me the design of the stope Larry Marek was in had been used several times in the past at the Lucky Friday without incident, and that supervisors and other crew members checked the area daily. He disputes the claim that the pillar was removed for its silver ore. And, he says, when workers return to the Lucky Friday, they will get more safety training -- including how to alert managers to their concerns.
But that doesn’t satisfy Hayley Marek. Larry’s daughter is also disappointed that federal regulators fined Hecla just $360,000 for her father’s death.
She reads from the official federal report on the incident: “‘Mine management has engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence by directing the pillar to be mined as the stope advanced and allowing miners to work under inadequately supported ground. This is an unwarrantable failure to comply with a mandatory standard.’"
“So it’s hard to take that in and then have them not accept responsibility for it," Hayley says. "When it says right there what happened.”
Mike Marek eventually went back to work at the Lucky Friday Mine. On his first day, they asked if he would be willing to work in the area just below where Larry was killed – and he said yes.
“I know a lot of people would say I don't know how you did that, but to me, I thought that's the closest thing I got to him," Mike says. "That was it.”
Mike now has a tattoo of Larry on his left shoulder. These days he feels a mix of sadness and anger – at the company and also, at himself.
“When you lose someone like that, important to you in life, it really takes the air out of you, it really does. And it’s going to haunt me the rest of my life because I didn’t go and tell them, ‘Hey, we’re not doing that.’ I could have stopped that.”
In November, another miner died at the Lucky Friday. A month later, seven more miners were injured. The series of incidents led federal regulators to order major safety improvements. All the Lucky Friday Miners were laid off, including Mike Marek. To him, it was a relief.
He’s working at a different silver mine now, this time alongside one of his sons. When Hecla starts rehiring, Mike Marek won’t be going back.
On the Web:
Federal Report on Larry Marek’s death:
Lucky Friday Mine:
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network