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10 Features

October 26th 2010 Buried alive: The Chile copper-gold mine disaster

Brian Byrne reflects on the aftermath of the recent in- ternational news story that captivated the world media.

You're hunched over in the dark- ness and your only source of light is the one attached to your helmet. Your body is covered in a thick layer of sweat, your stomach is grumbling and your shift doesn't end for another nine hours. The life of a miner in the San José copper- gold mine in Copiapó, Chile, was- n't exactly easy to begin with. When the mine in question col-

lapsed on 5th August 2010, life got a whole lot more difficult. A rock fall occurred, trapping 33 miners deep within the mine, including several mechanics that, on any other day, would not have been with the group. The fall also raised a cloud of dust so thick it blinded the miners for six hours, causing lingering eye irritation and burn- ing. The miners used the skills they'd

learned on the job to survive. For 17 days they survived on rations, and then on 22nd August, help fi- nally arrived in the form of a drill. The miners attached a note to it which read: “All 33 of us are well inside the shelter.” Hours later they received a video camera, and over the following days, food, water, medical supplies and bedding. Despite the aid, food intake was

limited. Each miner was allowed a single biscuit, two spoons of tuna and a sip of milk every 48 hours. They filmed videos for their fami- lies, videos scientists and psychol- ogists also used to analyze their physical and mental conditions. The doctor in charge of the rescue operation said: “they have consid- erably less discomfort than we might have expected after spend- ing 18 days inside the mine, at 700 metres deep and under high tem- peratures and high humidity". The miners' families sent videos

but were told to keep them opti- mistic. As it stood, it might have been months before the miners were rescued. The miners, how- ever, took this news well. With the help of medical professionals they kept busy and mentally focused. Florescent lights imitated day and night. They separated into groups and worked in shifts, with groups responsible for handling packages from the surface, environmental safety, preventing further rock falls, communications and sanita- tion-related tasks. On the surface, Camp Hope, a makeshift tent city, was created, in

which friends and family waited in the nearby desert for those trapped. Newspaper and television crews arrived to broadcast the disaster to the world. On 12th October, rescue plans were carried out ahead of schedule. After 69 days under- ground, all 33 miners finally made it out of the San José copper-gold mine alive. The rescue was broad- cast worldwide. In the days following the suc-

cessful rescue, Chilean president Sebastián Pinera ordered 18 mines be shut down. The fate of a further 300 is unclear. The San José cop- per-cold mine is also closed, and will remain that way for the forsee- able future. On October 25th, the rescused minors met with the Chilean president at Le Moneda, the presidential palace. The presi- dent commended the miners, say- ing: “Today Chile is not the same country as it was 69 days ago. The miners themselves are not the same. They were trapped there on August 5 and they have come out fortified and taught us a lesson that Chile is not the same country as before. Chile is more united and stronger than ever.” The Chileans’ handling of the

near-disaster extented to stratigic media management. Over 2000 journalists and technicians from all over the world were granted per- manent access to the site to capture the skillful handling of the ordeal. President Pinera, a billionaire media mongoul who sold his TV station when he became president, understood how to manipulate the media to captures the world’s hopes and emotions in the unfold- ing story. Following their dramatic rescue,

“los 33” are being drenched in a media deluge, chased for personal details about their confinement and their new and altered lives outside the mine. One journalist who was on site from the very beginning is battling for the rights to write a book and eventually make a movie based on the miners’ experiences. Is the media exploiting a situation already charged with heart and pathos for its own gain, or merely enthusiastically reporting what is already a captivating tale of sur- vival against the odds? It is media coverage after the event that will tell, as the miners attempt to return to their normal lives outside the glare of the media spotlight.

Chilean odyssey timeline Philip Saunders

August 5: A century-old mine in San Jose caves in. At a depth of nearly 700 metres below ground, thirty three men are trapped.

August 7: Chilean president Se- bastian Pinera returns home from a state visit to Columbia to over- see events. First rescue effort fails when a second cave-in mars the attempt.

August 8: The missing miners cannot be located. Five inch bore- holes are drilled into the rock at intervals to locate them. After a fortnight of drilling, many be- come sceptical that the miners are still alive. The head of Serna- geomin, the national mining au- thority, is fired for neglecting to implement new safety measures after the death of a worker in 2008. Hope diminishes.

August 22: Rescuers hear tap- ping on the drill over half a kilo- metre below. When the drill is pulled out, a note is attached. It reads: “Estamos bien en el refu- gio, los 33” – “We are fine in the shelter, 33 of us.” The discovery sparks jubilant celebrations all over Chile.

August 23: Supplies of food, water and medicine lowered to the miners, who have split into three groups along a 1 kilometre cross-section of the mine.

August 25: Authorities seek ad- vice from NASA about how to maintain the health, fitness and morale of the miners, who will have to endure cramped conditions for the durations of the rescue.

August 27: The first video footage of the miners is released, appar- ently in good spirits. The footage sparks attention worldwide. The miners speak to their loved ones for the first time via radio-tele- phone.

August 31: Rescuers begin drilling a preliminary pilot hole with a 31- ton drill. On September 2, engi- neers claim that it could take over four months to carry out a rescue. September 8: Miniature projector lowered down the hole so the min- ers can watch a match between Chile and Ukraine. All members of the Chilean team have the slogan “fuerza mineros” emblazoned on their jerseys, meaning “miners be strong”.

September 14: Wife of miner Ariel Ticonda gives birth to a baby girl, who they call "Esperanza", "Hope". In another video confer- ence, miners sing the national an- them for Chile’s bicentennial. The doctors veto their request for wine. September 18: A second drill reaches the level of the miners. A plan of alternatives is hatched- three separate holes will be drilled as a plan B and C, in case one of the others is shut off.

September 24: The miners mark the 50th day of their ordeal.

September 30: Mayor of Copi- apo announces that 27 of the 33 families will sue the Chilean gov- ernment for damages of $27 mil- lion (€19 million). Unfair conditions of mining workers poignantly brought to light when one of the trapped miners ex- pressed his worry that his family could not pay the bills while he wasn’t working.

October 9: Five days before President Pinera had announced that a rescue was “very close”. To the elation of everyone above and below ground, the tip of the drill breaks into the cavern. October 11: The rescue capsule “Phoenix”, which was made by the Navy and painted in Chile’s national colours, begins its de- scent. The ascent will be as long as two Eiffel Towers stacked on one another.

October 12: Under the glare of the world’s media, who parade the event as a gripping tale of sur- vival, the first miner Florencio Avalos is winched to the surface. The rest follow in clockwork suc- cession, till sunset when Luiz Urzua is secured, their leader and the last to leave. A pact of silence between the miners ensures that no one man will ever speak alone of the event in its aftermath.

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