Chile: It's a waiting game at makeshift camps

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — Like many in Chile’s newest village, “Camp Hope,” Elizabeth Segovia hurried to the mine when she learned that her brother Dario was trapped three miles inside.

Today, on her 50th birthday, her greatest wish is about to be granted: an enormous, 31-ton drill last night began carving out the rescue hole for her brother, one of 33 miners who have been caught below the hard rock of the northern Atacama Desert since Aug. 5.

“I never gave up faith that they were alive,” said Segovia, sipping on a mate next to a bonfire in the chilly desert. “We are calm, but we will not leave here no matter how long it takes to get them out.”

Dozens of tents line the winding road that leads to the entrance to the copper and gold mine, as the families of the miners, who have traveled here from all over the country, have set up camp to keep vigil for their loved ones.

The local municipalities provide them with food, psychological care, child care, firewood and daily transport into the nearby city of Copiapo.

The international and national press keep them amply busy, peppering them with questions.

Now, the families are not only able to exchange daily letters with the miners through the long bore holes drilled last week, but they are also able to talk with the miners through a recently set-up phone line.

Nobody has benefited more from those communication links than Cristina Nunez, 26. Four days ago, she received a marriage proposal from one of the miners, Claudio Yanez, 34.

“We only got to speak for less than a minute, and I reluctantly said yes,” laughs Nunez. “But I am super happy. He told me he wants to get married as soon as he gets out,” she said.

While the living situation is obviously difficult at 2,300 feet below ground, one miner, Roberto Castillo, 41, who was a supervisor of miner workers at the San Jose mine, said he is confident that the 33 miners are fine because they are more than accustomed to their surroundings.

“We are used to being in a mine. It’s like a second home for us,” said Castillo. “We miners spend more time in the mines than than we do in our own homes,” he said.

Chile has put the full weight of its resources behind the rescue effort, which may cost as much as $10 million for the high-tech drills and the large, sophisticated support system set up to care for the trapped miners and their families that even involves a team of experts from the U.S. space agency NASA.

Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the rescue effort could take from three to four months to complete. Though, a recently announced “Plan B,” utilizing a faster drilling technology at an existing hole that is situated closer to the miners, could more than halve the time estimated needed to drill a rescue route.

In a press conference this morning, Chile President Sebastian Pinera referred to both of the drilling plans underway and reiterated that the government would “do everything humanly possible” to get the miners out of the mine before Christmas.

Chile’s extraordinary initiative to rescue the miners, which has galvanized Chileans and become a source of national pride, stands in stark contrast to other mining accidents in Latin America.

“How many countries in Latin America would do what Chile is doing?” asked Ivan Marin, an editor of a Chilean internet mining industry site.

In 2006, Marin pointed out, a methane explosion at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Mexico trapped 65 miners. In this notorious incident, families of the miners complained that Grupo Mexico, the company responsible, abandoned efforts to save the trapped miners six days after the accident as the Mexican government stood on the sidelines and did nothing to intervene.

Still, workers at the mine say the Chilean government ought to do more to help them with their personal economic loss. The San Esteban company, which owns the mine, is set to declare bankruptcy this week putting about 270 people out of work and their paychecks in jeopardy.

Workers furthermore say that the government shares in the blame for the accident. Twenty-five days after a July 3 accident at the San Jose mine caused one miner to have a leg amputated, Chile’s regional health ministry authorized the reopening of the mine. Five days after the mine reopened, the present mining accident occurred.

The mine was also temporarily closed in 2007 after a miner died in an accident.

The regional health minister responsible for reopening the mine resigned on Monday as dozens of concerned miners were meeting with government officials at the mine urging that authorities step in to guarantee that they get paid throughout the rescue effort, receive unemployment benefits afterward and are given assistance in securing new work.

Javier Castillo, 42, one of the leaders of the miners union, said that Chile’s mining industry is a “worldwide scandal” for its precarious labor conditions. He said the Chilean economic model also forces young boys and men above the age of 50 to engage in hard manual labor in mines due to no viable employment alternative for supporting their families.

“In Chile, we have the freedom to work but not the right to work,” said Castillo.

Castillo adds that while the out-of-work miners do not want the San Esteban company to reopen the mine, they do urge that a new company, with sufficient resources to invest in miner safety, be allowed to set up at a different side of the site to continue exploiting the minerals at the mine.