Chilean miners: Voices from the underground

Tensions are brewing—both below and above

Photograph by Lorenzo Moscia/Redux/ Keystone Press Agency

“We always had problems with safety in that mine. Every day when we came to work we’d see rubble from falls that had happened since we left the day before. Pieces of the tunnel were collapsing all the time.”

Until three months ago, Gino Cortés worked in the San Esteban mining company’s San José gold and copper mine in the desert mountains north of the Chilean city of Copiapó. He might have been underground when the mine’s roof collapsed on Aug. 5, trapping 33 miners some 700 m beneath the surface, but for a twist of luck, or perhaps fate. Just one month before that, says Cortés, “I was walking in one of the tunnels when a rock fell from the ceiling and tore my leg off. I thought it was a nightmare. Then, when I realized it was real, the only thing I could think of was that I had to live. I saw a light. I think it was God, because I have no other injuries. Only this leg.”

Cortés speaks from his bed in a Santiago hospital, where he is having an infection treated. He was home near the San José mine when it caved in and entombed his friends and co-workers. “I wasn’t surprised,” he says. “All the workers knew something was going to happen. They had heard strange sounds. Old miners say a mine is alive and speaks to you. That’s how they knew something wasn’t right.”

Luis Rojas, who delivers fuel to vehicles inside the mine’s cavernous underground tunnels, had just returned to the surface when the mine collapsed at two o’clock in the afternoon. “It sounded like an explosion,” he says. “Then we saw dust like a volcano. The mine boss, Carlos Pinilla, tried to get in through the main entrance, but it was impossible to breathe.”

Soon family members in Copiapó and other nearby towns were hearing about the accident from workers at the mine. “The mine’s owners never called me. I heard from others,” says Antenor Barrios, whose son, Carlos, was trapped. “I was dying inside. I was so desperate. We immediately drove to the mine. The police told us to stay away from the tunnel and used buses to block our way when we tried to get inside. Nobody told us what was going on.”

The mine is located in the Atacama Desert, a place so dry that years can pass without rain. Tiny purple flowers now blanketing the mountains there can draw the moisture they need to survive from fog. The many mines in the region give the air an acrid smell, like chemical-laced smoke. The days are often scorching. And after dusk, especially in the Chilean winter that is just now ending, temperatures can drop close to freezing.

That first night, Antenor and other worried relatives slept in their cars. Then they brought tents, food, tables and chairs. They sawed off oil drums and made fires to boil tea and grill meat. Maglio Cicardini, mayor of Copiapó, arrived with city workers and began to build a support camp at the mine site. Soon there was a canteen, shelters, water and portable toilets. “The Chilean government said they’ll worry about the rescue; I said, okay, I’ll worry about the families. It was chaos. A lot of people were desperate,” he says
He enlisted the help of psychologists and social workers. “We would spend nights with the families, sharing coffee with them,” says Pamela Leiva, 28, a social worker. “It was cold. The families were stressed. They did not eat or sleep.”

Rescue efforts, meanwhile, were faltering. Rescuers tried to access the mine’s main entrance and then its ventilation shafts. Both routes were blocked. Family members became angry and frustrated. Drills were used to probe deep into the mine, hoping to find a tunnel or room where the miners might have been sheltering.

Two weeks passed. Then, shortly before eight o’clock in the morning of Aug. 22, rescue workers retrieving a drill found, taped to its bit, a piece of paper with a message scrawled in red ink that has now been reproduced on T-shirts and banners all over the camp: “Estamos bien en el refugio los 33”—“We 33 are well in the refuge.”

The official announcement was delayed until Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, in a cynical bit of political propaganda, could fly in and read the note to assembled media. But a rescue worker—reportedly defying orders—had already told the families what they had been longing to hear, that their loved ones had been found alive.

The story that has since emerged from the trapped miners is one of some despair, but also of enormous resilience and solidarity.

“At the beginning it wasn’t easy,” says Gastón Henríquez, who is the brother of trapped miner José Henríquez and has spoken to him about those early days underground, when no one knew whether the men would be found alive. “All of them crying. They were afraid. They probed the tunnel for a way out, but there wasn’t any. All their escape routes were closed. Some were ready to give up.”

Gastón was once trapped in a mine. “When the collapse happens, you try to get your bearings,” he says. “Then, when it is clear that there really is no way out, you can feel the death around you. My brother told me they felt the same thing. It’s something like you quit: ‘We’re trapped. That’s it.’ ”

Jimmy Sánchez, 19, is the youngest of the miners now underground, and has spoken to his father, Juan, about the collapse. “Every day was terrible,” Juan says. “He was scared. He’d dream about the rescue, about his mom walking into the mine to get him out.”

But it seems most of the trapped men halted their slide into despondency and found strength in each other. “They realized they had no other choice but to work together as a team,” says Henríquez. Many of the miners are religious. They prayed together. They dug for water. They rationed the little food they had, consuming two spoonfuls of tuna, a biscuit, and a small cup of milk every two days. “They never lost hope,” says Juan. “When they saw the tip of the drilling machine they were screaming because they thought it was a miracle.”

Even after this contact was made, some of the trapped men were depressed and refused to appear on camera when a video link was sent into the mine. But Claudio Ibañez, co-leader of a psychological team at the mine and one of the first to make contact with the trapped miners, says their mental health, overall, is strong. He says the presumption that men and women will usually break down emotionally if subjected to severe hardship is flawed. “Most people have deep resilience and the ability to persevere in extreme situations,” he notes. “Those miners reached for the best in themselves. Maybe if it were one man trapped down there, he would have died. But as a team, they survived.”

Ibañez and his team researched the stories of others who have survived prolonged hardship, including members of a Uruguayan rugby team who survived, cannibalistically, for two months in the Andes Mountains following a 1972 plane crash. But ultimately, he says, there is little he and the others can do. “We listen. We pay attention to what they need.”

Most important, Ibañez says, is that the trapped miners are busy. They are divided into three shifts and work to clear rubble; check for new falls; and organize deliveries of food, water, medicine and personal effects through the boreholes. “They are involved in their own rescue,” he says.

The most cherished delivery capsules—or doves, as they are called here—contain letters from loved ones on the surface. In the days after the miners were found, psychologists censored letters, telling family and friends not to write about financial problems or personal disputes that those in the mine could do nothing about. This practice has now ended, says Ibañez. “We’re dealing with mature, healthy people who can make their own decisions. Consider the note they sent to the surface: ‘We are fine in the refuge.’ They were telling their families to be calm. It was like a message a son sends home when he is far away.”

The miners were suffering physically, however. The dirty water and lack of food exacerbated existing dental problems. Heat and humidity led to skin infections. “All of them had a crust on their skin made of dust and sweat and the body’s natural emissions,” says Jorge Días, the doctor who tried to diagnose and treat the miners from the surface. He sent down water, soap, clean clothes, and antibiotic creams.

And, of course, the miners were slowly starving. “We had a plan to nourish them ready even before we knew they were alive,” says Díaz. “First we had them drink a bit of clean water every 15 minutes. If they didn’t throw this up, after six hours, we added sugar to the water. After 12 hours, they drank Gatorade. After 18 hours, nutritional gels. By the fourth day they were eating real food—fruit compote, bread with jam, and ham. They rationed their food carefully during those 17 days before we found them. They still had two cans of tuna left when we sent down the first deliveries of food. They sent the tuna up to the surface in the empty delivery capsules. I still have the cans. I will always keep them as a memento.”

The mood of the families keeping a vigil above ground soared with news that their husbands, sons and lovers were alive beneath them. Video and phone links were set up so those on the surface and below the ground could talk to each other. Each miner is permitted one phone call per week, lasting about eight minutes; the phone calls disrupt the delivery of food and supplies and are therefore rationed. Everyone on the surface who has spoken to the trapped miners says their spirits are high.

Early estimates suggested the miners would not be rescued for months, perhaps close to Christmas. Though no one in the Chilean government is making firm predictions, this date is shifting forward—thanks in part to the progress made by a drill owned by Canada’s Precision Drilling, which started working mid-September. It is dubbed “Plan C” by those at the camp, distinguishing it from the “Plan A” and “Plan B” drills that started running earlier.

Last week, Juan Carlos Marín, who is working on the Plan C rig, wandered into the adjacent camp to take photos. He told reporters that if it were up to him, they could break through to the refuge in a week, though he said those calling the shots wanted to move slower. The Chilean government scrambled to urge caution, and requests to interview anyone at Precision Drilling were turned down. Plan C’s progress has since, reportedly, slowed.

On Sept. 18, Chile’s bicentenary, children arrived at the mining camp to talk to their fathers. They wore the colourful clothes of Chilean huasos and huasas, cowboys and cowgirls. There were balloons everywhere, and a roving clown playing games with children. Chilean flags were sent down to the miners, who sent back a video of themselves dancing and singing. Jimmy Sánchez told his father he cried as he sang. “Jimmy seems more mature with every communication I hear from him. He’s growing up down there,” Juan Sánchez told Maclean’s.

“I prepared some jokes in advance,” Gastón Henríquez said after speaking to brother José for the first time. “I told him he has to slim down if he wants to fit up the hole they’re digging. We are close. When I spoke with him, all the memories of the times we have spent together came back to me. There were always jokes between us.”

Javier Galleguillos also teased his trapped brother, Jorge, in a letter he sent down the borehole. “Is it true, I asked him, that you were safely on the surface but snuck down the mine just before it collapsed because you wanted a second lunch?”

Gino Cortés, the miner who lost his leg in an accident a month before the mine’s collapse, has exchanged letters with his former colleagues now trapped underground. They wanted to know how he was doing, whether his leg was healing. “I was worried about them, and they were worried about me,” he says.

In addition to their families and friends, the miners are in regular touch with doctors and psychologists, such as Ibañez and Díaz, and with clergy. Carlos Díaz, a pastor with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, sent 33 tiny Bibles down the hole, with passages he found relevant highlighted. These included Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard me cry. He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.”

Late one night, just past one o’clock in the morning, Alicia Campos, the mother of miner Daniel Herrera, sat on a lawn chair beside a dying fire, sipping mate, a hot herbal drink popular in South America. A loud clanging noise from a nearby rescue drill filled the air. She said it didn’t bother her. Campos tried to sleep in Copiapó but could not, and now spends every night at the mine to be close to her son. She did leave during the day, though, to visit a nearby abandoned mine. “I wanted to know what my son felt,” she says. “There was a smell in the abandoned mine. It was the same scent that’s on his dirty clothes when they send them up from the refuge.”

“We are hot, macho people,” says Horacio Vicencio, who, until recently, worked at the San José mine. “That’s why we have so many women—usually three or four.”

“It’s like the gold rush 100 years ago. There are always booze and prostitutes,” adds one of his co-workers, Francisco Picón. “Mining is not a safe and secure job. A miner is looking for adventure. He wants to bring good things to his family—food and a good life. But he also enjoys a lot of women and alcohol.”

This isn’t always a problem, at least for the miners. They usually make good money and work long and irregular shifts. But keeping wives and lovers apart became impossible when both showed up at the mining camp vigil. Secrets evaporated in an instant as wives and mistresses confronted each other. At least two had to be physically separated by support workers. One miner’s wife discovered he had a mistress when she heard another woman calling out her husband’s name at a vigil.

Some of the miners’ girlfriends and ex-wives came because they wanted to be close to the men they love. Others wanted a share of their salaries, or of the increasingly large sums of money that have been donated to the miners and their families by individual Chileans and at least one mining union.

“About half have both wives and girlfriends, and some of the wives didn’t know about the girlfriends,” says Pamela Leiva, the social worker. “We needed to take care of conflicts. Some miners have two families. They’re married but have girlfriends. For now the priority is the wife—that’s the law—then kids and then parents. The problems come with all the benefits. One wife had been separated from her husband for eight years but still came here, maybe for the compensation.”

Meanwhile, at Dollie’s Sala de Espectáculos, a local strip club, Maribel Dupré, the 58-year-old woman running the bar, misses absent customers. “Only miners come here, also the ones now trapped underground,” she says. “They arrive straight from their shift, all dirty, covered in dust and carrying their gear in bags—we store them in the room over there. The bus takes them here before they go home. They don’t come as much now, though, since the accident. Nobody wants to celebrate.”

Among those with few reasons to feel festive are miners who are still officially employed at the San José mine, but because of the collapse are unable to do any actual work. They are instead on a long and unwanted vacation. They say they can’t quit without giving up an end-of-contract payout they might otherwise receive from the mining company, but are now getting paid very little, and only sporadically.

Several of them came to the mine one day earlier this month. President Piñera had scheduled a visit, and the miners said they had been promised a meeting by his secretary to discuss their situation and the mine’s safety record. Piñera arrived. A podium was set up with a Chilean flag behind it. Reflecting panels were arranged so his face would not appear in shadows on television. Music was piped in. Piñera met with some families and gave a speech. He said he was there representing all Chileans. He said the rescue would be “sooner than you think.” Then he left. He didn’t meet with any miners. “We’re not on his level,” said Horacio Vicencio, a union leader who had hoped to speak with the president. “That’s how workers in Chile are treated.”

Back at the camp, families and friends of the trapped miners resume their watch. They dump bags of charcoal and gnarled logs covered in pulpy bark on the cooling embers of earlier fires. They fill kettles with water and place chicken thighs and slabs of beef on well-used grills.

Sitting at a table where members of her family have worried, killed time, and hoped for weeks, Jessica Cortés scribbles out a letter and rolls a clean T-shirt around underwear and packets of chocolate spread out in front of her. It’s a care package for her husband, Victor Zamora. The chocolates aren’t permitted, but enforcement has become lax. “We send him whatever we want,” says Nelly Bugueño, Victor’s mother.

Cristian, Victor’s brother, unfurls a Chilean flag he had sent to the miners below. They returned it, now covered in their signatures like the banner of a winning sports team. He holds the flag to his face and inhales. Everything sent to the surface by the trapped miners smells of underground.

There’s a lot that could still go wrong. The mine is fragile, and the miners are no closer to the surface than they were two months ago. But it no longer seems rash to plan for the day of their rescue. The Chilean government is using heavy equipment to carve a large ledge into one of the surrounding hills. This is where media will be herded when the miners are brought out, so they cannot be intercepted and interviewed as they leave the mine.

Nicole Reygadas, 22, is waiting to see her father, Omar, a bulldozer operator and one of the trapped men. She says his ordeal has brought their family closer together. “When he comes out, I will hug him.”

Jimmy Sánchez, the youngest of the trapped miners, has written his father about his impending freedom. He said he must go first to the hospital. Then he wants his mother and father to take him to the cathedral. Then home.

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