Imagine showing up for work at 6:30 in the morning one day only to find your coworkers trapped in a fire that had been raging for an hour already. What do you do? This horrific situation is exactly what a young man known as Big Bill Murphy encountered one day over one hundred years ago when he arrived to his scheduled morning shift in the Belmont Mine. This Thursday marks the 106th anniversary of that fateful morning that stole the lives of so many; February 23 also fell on a Thursday in 1911 when the Belmont Mine Fire began.
It all began around 5:30 a.m. when one Mike Kuliache caught the smell of smoke deep in the mine. He followed it to a smoldering timber near the 1056 winze (a short vertical shaft that connects two levels of a mine.) The fire actually had been burning for some time at the 1166 foot level; it must have worked its way up the winze around the time Mike arrived. It may have been discovered sooner, but Mike and his brother were the only people in the mine in between shifts when the fire started. The cause of the fire has never been determined.
Mike immediately notified his supervisor, Frank Burke, of the situation. Burke got a friend to go with him and investigated. Sure enough, there was a fire. They followed the chain of command and let the mine superintendent know there was a problem.
By now the morning crew were arriving for work and, despite common sense, mine superintendent T.F.M. Fitzgerald ordered them—90 men in all—go down and get to work in the mine. Never mind the fire, it was further down. The men, mostly Slavic immigrants, protested but ultimately did as ordered since they would be fired if they refused any longer.
Fitzgerald took a small group of men with him to see how the fire was progressing. It must have progressed a bit because Fitzgerald was the only one of the group to make it back to the surface alive. He had a change of heart and ordered the mine to be evacuated and only then was any effort made to stop the fire. They attempted to seal off the lower level and smother the fire. Unfortunately, this only made it worse. The airflow within the mine caused the smoke to redirect and flood the main shaft, essentially cutting off the only way out for the men still in the mine.
It was around this time that William F. “Big Bill” Murphy showed up for work. Most of the 90 men were trapped in the 100 foot level of the mine and had been breathing in smoke long enough that they were either unconscious or too week to get inside the elevator sent down to evacuate them. Big Bill volunteered without hesitation to go down in the elevator and load them up. He was the only one brave enough for the job.
Down he went and before long the operator heard the bell ring to bring the cage up. Big Bill and a cage full of men unloaded on the surface. But there were more still down there, so back down Big Bill went. Another bell rang and another cage of rescued miners emptied out.
By now Big Bill was feeling the fumes but he couldn’t leave anyone to die. So down he went for a third time. This time the ring took a little longer to come but finally the ding came. When the elevator cage emerged from the black smoke it was full of men just like the other times. Except there was no Big Bill this time. One of the semiconscious miners said someone fell out during the ascent. Everyone knew it was Big Bill. His last known words before he went down the final time were: “Well boys, I’ve made two trips and I’m nearly all in, but I’ll try again.”
Eventually the fire was contained. In all, seventeen people died in the mine disaster, one of them being Big Bill Murphy. He and the others were buried in the Old Miner’s Cemetery in Tonopah, Nevada. Big Bill’s epitaph reads “Died While Saving Others.” There is also a monument to him outside the post office in Tonopah, recounting the heroic deed and the tragedy that necessitated it.