Sunday 19 September 2021

Chile mine rescue: 10 years on, survivors left to fend for themselves

The whole world cheered a decade ago when 33 trapped miners from the San Jose mine in the Atacama Desert were brought to the surface in a spectacular rescue operation. Today, however, many of the miners feel forgotten.

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In 2010, the San Jose copper-gold mine located in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile caved in, trapping 33 miners. Previous geological instability at the old mine and a long record of safety violations for its owners, San Esteban Primera mining company, had resulted in a series of fines and accidents, including eight deaths, during the dozen years leading up to this disaster.

Buried 700 feet underground

Stuck 700 feet below the surface of the earth, 5 kilometers from the entrance, the men initially took refuge in an emergency shelter, but poor ventilation in the hot, humid environment forced them to move into a tunnel. Meager emergency supplies of tinned fish provided enough food for a few days, but the men rationed them over two weeks, running out just as they were discovered.

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We are fine, all 33 of us

On August 22, 17 days after the mine caved in, the miners attached a note to a probe saying, “We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us.” All of the men are said to have taken an oath of silence to conceal certain details of their experiences underground, especially during the first few weeks as despair set in before contact was established with rescue teams.

Alive after 69 days

After an arduous rescue process, involving three different drilling projects racing to pull the miners from their underground prison, the miners were extracted one-by-one in a capsule called the Phoenix.

The 33 tour the world

After the rescue they became a global sensation. They were on talk shows and invited to the Greek island of Crete. Soccer team Manchester United invited them as guests of honor to the club’s training facility, supplying them with box seats to watch a match. They even took a trip to Jerusalem, invited by Israel for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

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A rough 10 years

The miners won a compensation claim against the Chilean state a couple of years ago which would have seen them awarded around $100,000 (€85,000) each. But the state has appealed, and the judicial process has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. A movie about their ordeal was made, but the miners say they were deceived by lawyers who negotiated to make them give up their rights.

Barely enough to get by

Jorge Galleguillos, one of the 33 rescued, struggles with the trauma. “I wake up at night, sometimes I’m down in the shaft again, that’s not good.” Although the 33 briefly enjoyed global attention, they have largely faded into obscurity. Many of the miners say they survive on a meager government pension that provides barely enough to get by.

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Reports by QCR staff

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