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Chilean miners, miracle men

SPECIAL REPORT FROM CHILE: A miraculous story of endurance and escape


 
Miracle men

Reuters/ Photograph by Lorenzo Moscia

Manuel González and his team prepared for this moment for weeks. There had been practice runs. And he knew every detail of the Phoenix capsule that would carry him more than 600 m below the desert mountain, to the tomb that had held 33 of his fellow miners for more than two months.

But González, a mine rescue worker with Codelco, Chile’s state-owned copper company, could not imagine exactly what he would find and how he would feel when he stepped out of the capsule, the first man from the surface to personally greet the trapped miners since they were buried alive in August. He was struck first by the high heat and humidity, like walking into a sauna. Then the men, wearing only shorts, their skin wet with sweat, gathered around him, smiling and clasping his hand.

“I felt joy to see them, to be in that place and know they were well. That made it easier for us,” he told Maclean’s.

González says he tried to demonstrate leadership, so the trapped men would have confidence in the rescue process. The original plan was for the Phoenix capsule to ascend empty and return with another member of the rescue team. Instead, González strapped in Florencio Ávalos, 31, whose face, captured in a video probe 17 days after the San José mine collapse, showed the world the miners were, astonishingly, alive.

Ávalos was winched to the surface, and one by one his co-workers followed. “Their discipline and organization was impressive,” says Jorge Bustamante, another rescue worker who descended into the mine. Those scheduled to leave first waited near the tunnel that would take them above ground. The rest were in a refuge room some distance away.

Each time a miner made it to the surface, a few loved ones were waiting to embrace him before he was whisked away to a clinic. Richard Villarroel, 26, who was awaiting the birth of his son, emerged from the rescue capsule to see his mother, Antonia Godoy. He told her he loved her.
“How can I explain how I felt when I saw him?” she said in an interview with Maclean’s. “It was like another birth, the same sensation. The first time I was waiting nine months. The second time was two months, and the two months were longer. But I never lost hope, because I wanted to give him strength. Now my son will be a father. Soon he will feel what I felt.”

Gastón Henríquez met his brother, José Henríquez, who served as the miners’ preacher underground, at the hospital. José grasped Gastón’s face when he saw him. “I didn’t have a lot of words, just a big hug,” says Gastón. “But in that hug there was a message, all the emotions of a man who hasn’t seen his brother in a long time.”

At nearby “Camp Hope,” where many of the trapped miners’ relatives had slept and kept vigil since the mine’s Aug. 5 collapse, celebrations broke out, and kept going through one night and into another, as the men reached safety. There was another celebration in the nearby city of Copiapó, where many of the miners live. A large screen in the town’s main square showed the rescue, and singers and other musicians performed on a stage. “We had planned a party,” Copiapó’s mayor, Maglio Cicardini, told Maclean’s. “We thought it would begin when the last man was freed, but it started with the first.”

Thousands came out to the square. Manuel Vera, 52, a beefy driller who has worked in mines for years, was among them. “I cried 39 times, for every miner and for every member of the rescue team,” he says. “It’s impossible to contain such emotions. I’m a strong man, but I couldn’t do it.”

The rescue went smoother and faster than anyone had anticipated. Some 24 hours after Florencio Ávalos was freed, Luis Urzúa, the shift leader who inspired and emboldened his colleagues when none knew if they would be found alive, stepped out of the capsule, like a ship’s captain, the last of his colleagues to reach safety. He embraced his family. “It was the most beautiful and happy moment for me,” he says. “And if you ask me, it was magnificent.”

There remained six rescue workers still underground. They too were lifted out of the depths, Manuel González last of all.

Two days later, on a plane, a reporter from Maclean’s happened to meet them. “For us, the Chilean people, it was necessary to do everything possible to rescue them alive,” said Ovidio Rodríguez, the team leader. “It was a matter of values, ethics and respect for people’s lives. The country had faith in us. They believed in us, and fortunately we achieved our objectives.”

Members of the rescue team carried framed reproductions of the red-inked message that miner Mario Gómez affixed to the drill bit that finally broke through to their underground shelter 17 days after their ordeal began: “Estamos bien en el refugio los 33”—“We 33 are well in the refuge.”

Stewardesses asked to pose with them for photographs. Passengers exiting the plane paused to shake their hands. Congratulations, they said. And thank you.

“He can’t sleep at night. He has nightmares. He’s shy now and doesn’t say much. It’s very strange. He used to be so expressive.”

José Rojas sits at an outside restaurant table in Copiapó and talks about his brother, Pablo Rojas, one of the 33. Amid the celebrations and joy still washing over Chile, his words hint at the challenges the trapped men may face, even after cheating death.

Interviews with the miners and their families, along with letters the miners sent to the surface, provide a glimpse of what they went through during the 69 days they were underground. They reveal courage, faith, humour, fear and anguish. “The first day was the hardest,” says Dario Segovia. “We had already finished our lunch and we heard a very loud noise. Our boss took us on the truck to go out, but our path was already blocked.”

There followed 17 days when they had every reason to believe they would die slowly of starvation, the survivors trapped in a black hole with the shrunken bodies of their friends. They drank oil-tainted water and consumed only two spoonfuls of tuna, a biscuit, and a small cup of milk every two days. They conserved light as a “treat” as the batteries for their helmet lights faded, although they could still use the lights of mine vehicles by running the engines to recharge depleted batteries. But, Mario Sepulveda told London’s Mail on Sunday, “We are used to working in the darkness—we are miners. We can feel our way down there in a way other men cannot.”

Victor Segovia kept a diary in the hopes that, should their remains ever be found, their relatives might at least know how they died. Several penned farewell letters to those they love most.

Even after contact was made, the miners struggled with isolation. They were told their rescue could take months. Two wrote to Carlos Parra Díaz, a pastor with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church who had sent tiny Bibles down the boreholes to the trapped men, and who tried to comfort their families on the surface. “I tell you we pray here each day at noon since this happened,” José Ojeda wrote. “Here we have different faiths, all brothers in God . . . I feel something inside that is difficult to write. If God allows us to live, it is because of something he has prepared for us when we come out.”

Jimmy Sanchez, aged 19 and the youngest of the 33 trapped men, said there were in fact 34 of them buried in the mountain, “because God never left us.”

Jorge Galleguillos wrote Ximena Fontealba, a cook at the mine and one of the last to see the miners on the day of the accident. “You owe me more snacks,” he said. And: “Dear Ximena, I apologize for this letter, because the light is not so good. Also, in the dark, our eyes fail. But these are details.”

Galleguillos, like many of his co-workers, found comfort in faith. Edison Peña sought it running. He pushed himself up to eight kilometres every day through a sweltering, boulder-strewn tunnel. His boots fell apart and his feet bled. “Why do I run?” he asked in a letter to Dan McDougall, a journalist with the Sunday Times and BBC Panorama. “Perhaps it is because I have this fury. I could just lie down, but my fury has been channelled into a hatred toward this mountain.”

Peña was still tormented when free. “I think there were many moments when I thought I would die, and that is very hard for me,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “I don’t even want to talk about it. It’s really hard to come back from death.”

Jimmy Sanchez’s father, Juan, told Maclean’s Jimmy suffered anxiety during his entombment. He dreamed his mother was walking into the tunnel to carry him out, but then he would wake up still trapped. And Hortensia Pardo, cousin of both Esteban Rojas and Pablo Rojas, told Maclean’s after speaking to her relatives: “Every moment was a bad one. They would not wish it on anyone.”

All the miners are being monitored for signs of post-traumatic stress. But Jorge Díaz, a doctor who treated them while they were underground, cautions that no one is really sure what to expect. “We have to be careful,” he says. “There is no antecedent in the history of medicine for this.”

On top of the ordeal they’ve been through, the miners now must cope with their unexpected fame. It comes with benefits. There are offers to travel, to visit famous soccer clubs. Edison Peña has been invited to the New York City marathon. Even without book or movie deals, all 33 will likely be rich. At least one wealthy businessman, a miners’ union, and ordinary citizens have all given them money.

It may result in a dramatic lifestyle change, especially for miners living in parts of the city that are rundown and dangerous. Maclean’s approached the home of one of the miners’ lovers, where neighbours said he was staying. It was early evening, but already one man was passed out drunk on the side of the road while stray dogs trotted by. Another, weaving and slurring, tried to force his way into the car but was too drunk to make much of an effort and gave up.

But the media attention can be bitter. On Sunday, a religious service was held at the mine. Many of the miners returned for the first time since their rescue. Some wanted to see the tents and makeshift kitchens where their loved ones had waited for them. When miner Omar Reygadas sat at his family’s shelter, the fire relit one last time to boil water and heat noodles, he was swarmed by reporters pointing cameras and pushing microphones toward him. He’d wanted this to be a special moment with his family, he said, and they’d ruined that.

This intensive scrutiny will abate, eventually. Many of the 33 seem eager to resume their normal lives, though some have reconsidered what it is they value most.

When Richard Villarroel returns to the now-abandoned mining camp, it is to help his mother pack up a tent and carry out the mattress she had slept on while he was underground. He throws both in the back of a pickup truck, along with a now-outdated poster displaying his face and a message: “We are waiting for you.”

What will you do now, he is asked.

“I’m going to stay close to my family, and my son who is on the way,” he says.

Alex Vega says his time trapped underground “changed my way of thinking. I realized that my family is the first thing in my life. Before I worked all the time. I’ve also changed spiritually. I’ve become closer to God.”
Claudio Yañez, 34, returns to the camp on Sunday. He wears dark glasses and carries a few rocks that he had brought to the surface from the tunnel. The rocks glint dully in the sun from the minerals in them. His girlfriend, Cristina Nuñez, hands Yañez one of their daughters, who falls asleep in his arms. Yañez adjusts the hood of her jacket to block the sun.

“Apart from my family, I missed food and cigarettes,” he says.

“It’s because I’m such a good cook,” says Nuñez. The two will get married in December. They decided to do so when Yañez was trapped in the mountain.

That night Yañez and Nuñez get together at a cheap hotel in Copiapó to watch a televised soccer game between the Colo-Colo soccer club and its rival team, Universidad Católica. Yañez has supported Colo-Colo since he was a boy, and when he was in the mine the club gave him a jersey with his name and the number 33 on the back, signed by all the players.

Yañez wears the jersey, drinks beer, and tells lewd jokes about what the miners really asked to be sent down the boreholes when they were trapped (inflatable sex dolls). There are about a dozen other men watching the match. They cheer, chant and sing. Colo-Colo wins. It isn’t quite dusk when the game ends. Yañez and Nuñez go home to their daughters.

When the last miner was rescued, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera delivered a televised address at the mine’s entrance. Chile, he said, had changed. It was more united and stronger than ever.

It is true that the rescue has become a nation-defining event here. A narrowly avoided tragedy has been transformed into something triumphant. The undeniable resilience of the miners, the sheer drama of their struggle and ultimate deliverance has uplifted the country in a way that can be compared to Canada’s hockey gold medals at the Vancouver Olympics, or perhaps the lunar landings of a previous generation.
Piñera has benefited personally from this. His approval ratings are high, even if not all the miners’ relatives were impressed by his visits to the mine. “We’re bored by him,” one relative told Maclean’s last month.

The popularity of Laurence Golborne, the mining minister, has also soared, especially among the miners and their families. Throughout the rescue process, he was a constant presence at Camp Hope. Late at night, out of sight of television cameras, he would wander from campfire to campfire, quietly chatting with relatives and hugging them before moving on.

But what difference will the rescue make for the thousands of Chilean miners who were not trapped but still work in unsafe conditions and with little job security? Many say they felt a bond with the 33. Some admit to a twinge of jealousy.

“The people in the mine are not well, but when they get out they’ll get a lot of money and a better job. The rest of us are just waiting to get fired,” Francisco Picón, who worked at the San José mine, told Maclean’s weeks into the rescue.

Gino Cortés lost his leg in an accident at the San José mine one month before its collapse. He has since suffered depression that he says is worse than anything he had experienced before. He says he would gladly have spent two months buried if it meant he could have his leg back.

About 50 of Cortés’s colleagues staged a brief demonstration at the San José mine on Sunday. They blew horns and held signs that read: “We 300 are not fine in the refuge” and “Trapped on the surface.” They haven’t worked since the collapse, though they have been paid up to Oct. 8. They say they are owed severance payments and worry they will not receive them. The San Esteban mining company, which owns the San José mine, has filed for bankruptcy protection. The Chilean government says it has taken legal action to recover rescue costs from the firm.

Piñera says he will address Chileans’ worries about mining safety and has promised “radical” changes. “Never again in our country will we allow working in conditions so inhumane and so unsafe as happened in the San José mine and in many other places in the country,” he pledged. There will be enormous pressure on him to keep his promise.


 
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Chilean miners, miracle men

  1. Hopefully this period of re-adjustment will be the worst of it for them. Great article!

    I'm a composer and I've written a piece called Help Arrives and set it to images from the rescue in this multimedia presentation:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0N57X29-dWo

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