Disasters & Accidents

Chile’s 33 rescued miners: From global spotlight to neglect in a decade

By Maria M. Mur

Copiapo, Chile, Aug 3 (efe-epa).- For some, it’s like it happened yesterday; for others it’s been an eternity. But none has been the same since.

A decade after 33 Chilean miners spent more than two months stranded about a half-mile underground, that group of men are still haunted by the experience and struggling to cope with the rage they feel over their perceived abandonment and neglect.

At 2.30 pm on Aug. 5, 2010, a cave-in at the San Jose gold and copper mine in the northern Atacama Desert cut off the only route to the mine’s entrance.

“There was a shock wave. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. I thought it was a blasting (operation),” Omar Reygadas, who at the time was in the deepest part of the mine, some 700 meters (2,300 feet) below the surface, recalled in remarks to Efe.

“We knew this could happen. The mine was constantly creaking. It was constantly warning us. But the bosses only cared about output,” Jorge Galleguillos, another survivor of the mining accident near the northern city of Copiapo, told Efe.

After 17 anguishing days in which the miners had no contact with the outside world and subsisted on a half of a cracker and two spoons of canned tuna every 48 hours, a drill bore through to a spot near the chamber where the 33 had taken refuge in total darkness.

When the drill returned to the surface, a small message was tied to it that read, “We are OK in the refuge, the 33.”

Rescuers then embarked on a race against time to widen the diameter of the 20-centimeter (eight-inch) bore hole so they could pull out the miners one by one.

That gargantuan task concluded with an Oct. 13 rescue operation that began shortly after midnight and lasted more than 21 hours. More than 1 billion people followed the Internet livestream of the operation, which was carried out with help from NASA and was a source of national pride.

The miners were held up as examples of resilience and teamwork and celebrated as national heroes.

They were invited to television studios and traveled to different parts of the world, including the United States, Israel, Spain and the United Kingdom; they met with the pope and served as inspiration for a 2015 Hollywood film starring Antonio Banderas.

But the reality of these men is very different today.

They have next to no contact with one another and get by for the most part on a monthly pension that started at 315,000 pesos and now amounts to 400,000 pesos, or roughly $520 at the current exchange rate and half of what they earned as miners.

Jimmy Sanchez, who was just 19 at the time of the accident and had only been a miner for five months, still speaks with a trembling voice about the terrifying ordeal.

“I was 25 when I started to realize everything that had happened. It affected me a lot. I was in bad shape. I cut my arms to vent (my emotions),” he said.

The therapist assigned to Sanchez by the government following the rescue ended those sessions after three months, and he now struggles to come up with the money to afford a psychiatrist.

Speaking from Copiapo, the city 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of the mine that is the hometown of most of the rescued men, he said he has not been formally employed for 10 years and lives at his parents’ home with his wife and two children because he cannot afford his own place.

“A lot of people made money off of our suffering, and that hurts. It wasn’t our fault that we were trapped, and we have to settle for a meager pension,” Sanchez said.

Claudio Yañez, who is 44 and also struggling financially, says employers won’t hire him for fear he will call attention to continued poor mine safety conditions in Chile, the world’s leading copper producer.

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