Ranging in age from 19 to 63, they include a former professional soccer player, a Bolivian immigrant in his first week at the mine, a salty former seaman who had premonitions about an accident and a man in his 50s who is still waiting to see the grandson born just before the cave-in occurred.
What Chileans are calling the “Miracle of the San José Mine” is the tale of how unthinkable adversity turned this motley collection of miners into a doggedly disciplined unit, how a recently elected billionaire president risked his reputation in spearheading their rescue and how family members never lost hope.
The story isn’t by any means over. It will take three to four months for a 30-ton drill to gouge a 2,200-foot tunnel down to the chamber where the men are holed up. The plan is to hoist the men out one-by-one, a journey that could take about 40 minutes for each miner.
In a video released Thursday, the men—shirtless, scrawny, with scraggly beards, but big smiles—showed the world their temporary home. “This is the famous shelter,” said one of the men. They pointed to a makeshift “casino,” where they played dominoes, and demonstrated how they had divided tasks needed to keep the refuge running. One miner was keeping a journal on all that had happened. “Get us out of here soon,” said another, in the spectral lantern-light of the mine.
The men can walk a distance through some unblocked tunnels, but spend most of their time in a couple of shelters that are relatively well ventilated and protected from cave-ins.
Physiologically and psychologically, the miners have entered seldom-explored territory, says Jeff Dyche, a James Madison University psychologist, who studied submariners when he served in the U.S. Navy.
Without sunlight serving as a regulator, the human body clock runs about 24 and a half hours, Mr. Dyche says, which means the miners are “going to be completely disengaged from what time it is in the outside world.” To make sure the miners are alert on the day of the rescue, he says, doctors will have to try and re-sync the men’s body rhythms by putting them on the same sleeping and waking schedule as people above ground.
Rescue planners at the state copper company, Corporacion Nacional del Cobre, have been discussing whether it would be necessary to blindfold the miners during the extraction or or conduct the operation at night, so they aren’t overwhelmed by the light when they come out.
More immediately, government rescuers are grappling with the question of how much control to place on the miners’ communication with loved ones. Earlier this week, family members said government psychologists had asked to review the letters they send down to the miners to make sure they avoided potentially upsetting issues, such as the fact the men may not be getting out of the ground until Christmas. Luciano Reygada, whose father is in the mine, said a psychologist told him, “Don’t say that we hope you come out soon. Just say that we’ll be waiting for you when you come out.” Rescuers have since said they gently told the 33 of their estimated time of departure, and the miners seemed to take it in stride.
Sergio Donoso, the uncle of Raúl Bustos, feels responsible for his nephew’s predicament. Six months ago, after one of the biggest earthquakes in a century along with a roiling tsunami smashed the southern shipyard where Mr. Bustos worked, Mr. Donoso suggested he travel north, to the mines. “He was worried about future catastrophes, so I told him there were stable jobs in mining,” said Mr. Donoso, who has been keeping vigil above the mine.
Mr. Bustos’ mother, Rosa Ibañez, came to the mine right away from her home in far-off southern Chile. It was the first time she’d flown on a plane. In Mr. Bustos’ first letter to his family this week, he said that he’d come up with a nickname for the diamond-tipped drill that rescuers had used to locate the men’s underground shelter: He called it “María Paz,” in honor of his five-year-old daughter, who relatives say is a handful.
Gregory Belenky, director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University, says the Israeli military found during the 1973 Yom Kippur war that the wrong kind of communication with family could add to stress. But Mr. Belenky, who served 29 years in the U.S. Army working on combat stress and other issues, thinks he would level with the miners about the rescue strategy “so they can plan, adjust expectations and so everyone is on the same page.”
The plight of the 33 men has been an eye opener for many Chileans. One of Latin America’s most advanced economies, Chile has been a darling on Wall Street for its free-market ethos. Its capital, Santiago, is clean and modern, with a scaled-down version of the Chrysler Building. But despite the emergence of other industries, including finance and construction, mining remains the bedrock of the economy, accounting for the biggest share of exports and output. The accident and rescue have allowed Chileans to get acquainted with people who are responsible for much of the country’s prosperity, but remain largely hidden from view due to the very nature of their work.
When the miners broke out into a ragged chorus of the national anthem after the first telephone contact was made with them on Monday, it was as “as though we couldn’t believe that some countrymen are still that way, of that caliber and that timber,” wrote Daniel Mansuy, a professor of political philosophy, in the Santiago newspaper La Tercera. Family members holding vigil above the mine said it more simply on a message emblazoned in marker on a Chilean flag: “Chile without miners isn’t Chile.”
The miners had no way of knowing what was in store for them when they showed up for their shift that fateful Thursday, Aug. 5. Like many of the miners, Mr. Yañez, who had worked eight months in the mine after leaving a low-paying construction job, “was just desperate for a paycheck” says his half-brother Pablo Lagos.
Twenty-four-year-old Bolivian Carlos Mamani, who emigrated to Chile to find work, was only in his first week at the mine, his brother Cesar Mamani told Chilean television.
The 121-year-old mine, operated by Chile’s Compañia Minera San Esteban Primera, had been shut down for about a year by regulators in 2007 after an explosion killed a miner. Mario Gomez, a former sailor who at 63 is the oldest of the trapped San José miners, had a nephew who lost a leg in an accident at the mine several years before that. Mr. Gomez’s wife, Lilian Ramirez, said her husband told her he was afraid of going to work not long before the collapse.
The collapse occurred at around at around 2 p.m., sending up a massive dust cloud. “We felt like the mountain was coming down on top of us and without knowing what was happening,” Luis Urzua, one of the leaders of the trapped men, would later say in a phone hookup with Mr. Piñera. “Then came the dust cloud, like four or five hours in which we couldn’t see anything.” The men lost a chance to escape through a ventilation duct in the first days of the crisis because mine managers hadn’t installed an emergency ladder, as required by law, Chile’s mining minister, Laurence Golborne said.
The mine collapse presented a challenge for President Piñera, a billionaire airline and television mogul, who took office in March. Chile’s first conservative president in two decades, Mr. Piñera has promised to run Chile as efficiently as he had his businesses. In a gamble that might have backfired if the rescue had failed, he cut short a trip to Colombia to go to the mine and has made three follow-up trips since. “It was a big bet but also a very important one at the core of his political message” of competence, said political scientist Patricio Navia.
Families at the site started hunkering down for a long haul, putting up tents or crude lean-tos made of garbage bags stretched above poles. Dubbed Campamento Esperanza, Camp Hope, the place took on a somewhat surreal air. The government started trucking in water and food, as well as sending counselors, cooks and kindergarten teachers. Shrines with votive candles and statues of baby-faced Saint Lorenzo, the patron saint of miners who is often decked out in a hard hat, sprang up alongside television satellite trucks and portalets. Other iconic figures were called on for luck. Relatives of 34-year old Edison Pena put the miner’s picture on a placard along with Elvis Presley, assuring him that “you will be bigger than Elvis” after emerging from the mine.
Worry also spread through the camp full of families. Ana Funes, a social worker from a nearby town, organized art classes for children as a diversion. But some kids’ anxieties consumed them, says Ms. Funes. On a bulletin board, along with crayon drawings of Spiderman and a fairy princess, was a self-portrait of a pig-tailed girl with tears streaming down her cheeks. “I love you, cousin,” was the caption.
By the end of last week, a number of the families were losing faith in the government drilling strategy. They pressed Mr. Piñera’s rescue team to let 10 volunteers into the bowels of the mine to bring out their loved ones. Government officials said that was foolhardy.
“We have done and will continue doing what’s humanly possible,” President Piñera said. “But not everything is in the hands of our engineers and technicians. It’s also in the hands of God.”
A little after 6 a.m. last Sunday the probe broke through an underground chamber, a short distance from the miners’ main shelter. The 28-year-old drill operator, Eduardo Guerra, thought he felt some vibrations coming from below. Some engineers came over with stethoscopes and said they heard something, too. When Mr. Guerra pulled the probe out of the ground, a plastic bag had been attached to the drill tip with cable and rubber bands.
Inside the bag was a note painted in red: “We are well in the shelter the 33.”
Write to Matthew Moffett at email@example.comCopyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. Distribution and use of this material are governed by our Subscriber Agreement and by copyright law. For non-personal use or to order multiple copies, please contact Dow Jones Reprints at 1-800-843-0008 or visit
In Chile, Trapped Miners Dig in for the Long Haul – WSJ.com