North Idaho

Family says Hecla traded miner safety for profits

PINEHURST, Idaho - The family of a miner killed at the Lucky Friday mine in the spring of 2011 is speaking out about their concerns about Hecla Mining trading miner safety for profits.

It's been 15 months since the Silver Valley was rocked by the news that one of their native sons had died in a cave-in at the Lucky Friday mine. Larry "Pete" Marek was killed after he was buried under a pile of rubble larger than a locomotive.

It was the first fatality at the mine in more than 20 years.

While Marek's relatives concede mining can be a dangerous way to make a living, as evidenced by the fact that so far this year 20 American miners have died on the job, they also said that Lucky Friday mine managers should have never removed the pillar of rock supporting the tunnel the Mareks were working in.

Marek family angry at Hecla

On April 15, 2011, Larry Marek and his big brother Mike had hopped on a hoist and were lowered more than a mile below the surface. The pair were working in opposite ends of the number 15 stope when Mike heard a strange sound.

"All of a sudden I heard like a bunch of air, like a VOOF, you know all that's all I could hear in my ears and then it got dusty," Mike Marek said.

Alarms in the hoist control rooms went off. Mike pushed through the cloud of dust looking for his brother Larry.

"I ran back in there hollering for him and he didn't answer. Then I ran back down the slot, yelling for him because I thought he might have been where we parked our jumbo," he said.

Despite heroic efforts to reach Larry with a pair of rescue tunnels blasted out of solid rock, no one would ever see Marek alive again.

Both Larry and Mike had worried about removing the pillar that supported the stope they were working in, "because that pillar is the support beam for the whole stope and when you go along and start taking the pillar out you are taking away all the roof support" Mike said.

Hecla officials said the pillar was removed because a vein of silver ran down either side of the support. The Mareks claim they expressed their safety concerns to a company geologist.

"When the pillar was being removed from the beginning and Larry said, 'What if this pillar gets weak?' And they just said it's in the planning," Mike said.

Now, more than a year later, Mike and his other brothers, who are also miners, wish they had done more to challenge taking the pillar out.

"We're there to make money to live. I should have said something 'cause now I just got to live with this the rest of my life thinking that if I had just said something," Mike said.

Hecla officials say they have given up removing support pillars in areas of the mine where two veins come together. They say new training and safety policies are already in place to prevent future cave-ins.

The Marek family, however, is not satisfied and now have a law firm representing them.