An article yesterday should have said that the Mormon church president, not the counselor to the first presidency, is considered a prophet by church members.
More than 1,700 people crowded into a high school auditorium for an emotional memorial service today and began facing the prospect that last week's underground fire in the Wilberg coal mine may have killed not only 27 miners but the community's economic life as well.
Flames inside the mine were spreading rapidly and fireballs began spewing out of the mine's portals, forcing federal officials to order indefinite shutdowns of Wilberg and two adjoining mines operated by the Emery Mining Corp.
The closings threw more than 800 people out of work at least temporarily. Although grief over the dead miners inside Wilberg has yet to subside, local officials began considering the possibility of related layoffs and a permanent loss of the region's principal source of employment.
It is a numbing turnaround for this remote corner of south-central Utah. Less than a decade ago, in the late 1970s, the twin national concerns for energy and environment brought a boom to the region, with its plentiful and relatively clean low-sulfur reserves. Now coal -- or at least the inescapable danger of clawing it from the earth -- has brought disaster and potential depression.
"I don't think anybody has had time to stop and think what has happened to us," said Pat Brinkerhoff, the assistant recorder of deeds at nearby Huntington, which has a population of 2,800.
"The whole economy here depends on coal . . . . It's scary. This could become a ghost town," Brinkerhoff said.
"We're very concerned," added Tom Humphrey, a coal miner who serves as mayor of Orangeville, with a population of 1,300. "Those mines provide 80 percent of the employment in this town. If they have to shut those mines down, people will just have to leave. There's just nothing else for them to do here."
For the moment, officials of Emery Mining Corp., which operates the mine under contract to Utah Power and Light Co. -- are reluctant to talk about the economic consequences of the Wilberg disaster.
"I don't want to instill any more fear or alarm in the community," said Emery spokesman Robert Henrie. "It has gone through enough of that. I'm inclined to look at the best-case scenario right now, rather than the worst case."
But even the "best-case" scenarios looked grim today.
The fire that began 1,800 feet underground last Wednesday night had reached the entrance to the main Wilberg shaft, and flames and fireballs of combustible gas were reported shooting out of the mine's portals.
Henrie said the company still hopes the fire will die down enough by this weekend to permit federal and company officials to move in and seal off the complex, choking off the oxygen supply that is feeding the fire.
If the fire can be extinguished, he said, the two adjoining mines -- Deer Creek and Des Bee Dove -- might be able to reopen after the first of the year and recall some laid-off workers. But Wilberg, where more than half the Emery work force was employed, "will not reopen for a period of time," he added.
United Mine Workers officials, however, say the damage caused by the fire could well spread into Deer Creek and Des Bee Dove. They warn that the danger of a methane explosion is building. "I think we could well lose all three mines," said Greg Hawthorne, a UMW official in Washington who was here this week.
The implications of even a partial shutdown are incalculable, according to local officials.
During the late 1970s, Emery County enjoyed a coal boom as demand for low-sulfur "clean coal" surged at the expense of high-sulfur "dirty" coal in the mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Miners from the east poured into the trailer parks of one-street towns such as Huntington, Castle Dale and Orangeville and brought a new prosperity to this old Mormon pioneer county.
But with the recession of three years ago, the bottom fell out of the western coal market and unemployment in southeastern Utah was decimated, said Bill Howell, executive director of the Southeastern Utah Association of Governments. Since last year, the work force of Emery County alone plummeted from 8,460 to 3,325.
"We had shock waves go through our economy," said Howell. "We started experiencing massive layoffs and they had a ripple effect. All of a sudden we had vacant store fronts showing up on the streets. We've had more than 50 executive-quality homes that have been abandoned."
Howell says the already weak local economy is now "100 percent dependent" on the Wilberg, Deer Creek and Des Bee Dove mines. "If you're not working in those mines, you're selling groceries and insurance to the miners or you're repairing the mining equipment . . . . I'm just afraid this is going to result in a loss of our labor force."
The prospect of economic hardship was deep on people's minds as they quietly filed into the Emery County High School auditorium on a cold, gray morning for a Mormon memorial service for the dead miners. Governor-elect Norman H. Bangerter and Mormon "counselor to the first presidency" Gordon Hinckley, whom church members consider a prophet, consoled the miners' widows and children.
Hinckley called the past week "a dark and somber chapter in the history of this state" and said the pain of the miners' loss "will not quietly pass."
"For generations those who have mined coal have been familiar with death and danger," Hinckley told the congregation. "The coaleries of England and the coal mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have etched a history of catastrophe.
"We must realize that every time we switch on an electric switch or turn up the thermostat . . . we are employing energy from coal mined by men such as those who died the other night."