Chile: Voices from the underground

SANTIAGO, Chile — In his first conversation with the trapped miners through a remote phone device on Monday, Chile Mining Minister Laurence Golborne learned what the miners wanted most: Food, toothbrushes and beer.

They also wanted to sing the national anthem. The chorus of 33 men, one of whom is Bolivian, broke into song from half a mile underground when the first audio contact was established since the cave-in on Aug. 5.

After weeks of parallel drillings into hard rock and several frustrated attempts, rescue workers had their first success on Sunday. Against all odds, every one of the miners survived the accident in the San Jose copper and gold mine in the Atacama desert, 500 miles north of the capital, Santiago.

The miners sent up to the surface a few small notes written on scraps of paper and wrapped in a plastic bag tied with straps of rubber to one of the drills that had descended to the location where they were presumed to be.

A larger piece of paper with big red letters read: “We are fine in the refuge, the 33.” A camera attached to the drill was able to transmit the face of a young miner, apparently in good health.

In that first conversation Monday, the miners also cheered at the news that their coworkers, who were on the way out of the mine during the cave-in, had made it safely out.

The mood was celebratory, but the ordeal isn't over yet. It could take until Christmas to drill a new tunnel for their escape.

Getting supplies to the miners is a difficult operation. The government has already begun sending them sugar water, medicine and nutrients, as well as letters from their loved ones. Each “dove” piped down with supplies and messages takes an hour to reach the miners and another hour back.

Health officials sent a questionnaire for each of the miners to get a more precise picture of their physical conditions, access to food and water, medication, possible injuries and other vital data. The miners piped the questionnaire back through the 2,300 foot-long, narrow shaft: No one was injured. They had access to stored water as well as a drip in the mine. Their eyes hurt from the dust and ventilation was a problem. Some had mild stomach pains, and they were hot. Mostly, though, they were hungry.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the miners had been rationing the tuna fish, water and milk stored in the refuge and were well organized in their daily routine. “Their physical and mental health, in spite of everything, is extraordinarily good,” he said.

The rescue will not be easy or fast, and is expected to last between two and four months. Mining engineer Andre Sougarret, head of the government-appointed emergency team supervising the rescue efforts, said the plan now is to drill three shafts — one for communications, another to send food, oxygen and other supplies, and a third for ventilation.

The actual rescue will not be through any of these shafts. A new 26-inch diameter vertical tunnel will have to be drilled in order to lift the miners up one by one. Thirty tons of new equipment from Codelco to be used for the rescue are on their way to the mine, and the government announced it would request technology from NASA to help the miners endure the long confinement ahead.

Mining engineer Agustin Holgado, of the international engineering consultant company Arcadis, believes much of the rescue effort will have to be done by the miners themselves.

“The vertical drilling will be from above and from below, and it’s going to be hard work for the miners. First, they will have to be physically fit and learn from experts how to assemble and then operate the machinery the rescue teams will lower to them in pieces. Then, they will start breaking ground from the bottom up, clean out the material that will fall, and guide the machinery working above ground while widening the tunnel,” he explained.

It has not been easy for Mining Minister Golborne, 48, who in less than a year has gone from general manager of one of Chile’s biggest multilatinas (a multinational corporation based in Latin America) to government official to the families’ daily lifeline to their trapped loved ones.

More used to keeping an eye on the stock market than sharing a cup of tea with impoverished miner families, Golborne has been meeting every day with them, keeping a pledge to always speak with them first before making any public statement. Golborne has spent much of these 18 days at the site of the accident, and until Aug. 22, repeatedly called on the families to keep only moderate expectations of survival.

When an attempt to drill through the chimney two days after the accident caused another cave-in, Golborne cried in front of television crews. Family members, who never lowered their guard, scolded him publicly for setting a bad example.

Last week, tensions rose high after one of the drills that had reached deepest into the mine erred its direction, deflating expectations. Two days before the first contact, the accumulated anxiety, exhaustion and frustration led a group of local independent miners to insist on going down themselves, but the government flat out refused. The situation seemed to be spiraling towards a standoff, but hours later, the paper with big red letters changed everything.

That note, read and broadcast throughout the country, sparked celebrations everywhere. Young and old spontaneously poured to the streets waving Chilean flags, honking their horns and celebrating as if Chile had just won a soccer championship.

Diners at restaurants began applauding and as the news spread by word of mouth in the metro, buses, homes and streets, people cheered and prayed. At late lunchtime on Sunday afternoon, Chileans raised a toast to the miners; many cried in disbelief.

For the miners’ anguished families, who have camped out throughout the 18-day ordeal in 33 government-provided tents in the rough desert landscape, it was party time. They danced, laughed, staged shows and finally relaxed for the first time in almost three weeks in the camp they named Esperanza (Hope).

From the very first moment there has been an enormous outpouring of solidarity from all over the country, as the government immediately mobilized experts, resources and machinery from the state-owned copper giant Codelco and set up an emergency committee and rescue teams that have worked around the clock.

Miners and townspeople from nearby locations have accompanied the relatives, social workers and psychologists have taken turns assisting them, and last week, a group of local fishermen from the coast traveled with truckloads of seafood and fish soup to share with the 33 families.

The mining drama has brought new attention onto the San Esteban Mining Company, owner of the San Jose mine. The company has often been accused by mining unions of disregarding safety regulations. The mine was closed in 2007 after the death of a miner in an accident a year earlier but inexplicably, it reopened in 2008, even though the company had not complied with safety standards, including improving ventilation and building an alternative escape route.