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Chile: Voices from the underground

When you're trapped a half mile beneath the Earth's surface, what is it you want most?

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.