LIMA, Peru — Nine men trapped by a tunnel collapse in an unlicensed mine were rescued today after six days underground receiving oxygen and liquid meals via a one-inch-wide hosepipe.
The miners appeared in good health and spirits as they emerged one by one from the mouth of the Cabeza de Negro copper and gold mine, in the desert region of Ica, some 200 miles south of Lima.
Wearing sunglasses to protect their eyes from the sunlight and waving a Peruvian flag, the men were given food and hot drinks before heading to hospital for a medical check-up.
One of them, interviewed on local TV but without being named, thanked the rescuers, adding, “I feel as though I have been born again.”
The miners were also greeted by President Ollanta Humala, who had traveled to Ica on Tuesday night to be at the scene as the men finally emerged from the mine.
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“Mission accomplished. I think the best medicine for them now is to be with their families,” Reuters reported the president telling waiting journalists.
The miners’ ordeal began at Thursday lunchtime after the mouth of a horizontal tunnel in the arid hillside collapsed. It left an impenetrable barrier of rock about 30 feet thick between the miners and the outside world — and blocked fresh air from entering the mine.
With echoes of the 2010 drama suffered by 33 Chilean miners, trapped deep underground for 70 days, this week’s frantic attempts to save the nine men gripped Peru as the drama unfolded in the glare of the media spotlight.
Despite mining being the principal engine of the Peruvian economy, the country has no official mining rescue crews and it took several days to muster a team of experts from local and Chilean private mining companies. They included some of the same specialists who had participated in the rescue of the 33.
They were then faced with the painstaking task of removing the rockfall inch by inch, replacing it with wooden supports to prevent the mine ceiling from collapsing again.
Although health and safety laws appear to have been breached at the Cabeza de Vaca mine, it seems unlikely that anyone will be brought before the courts.
The miners were working for themselves rather than a company. The mood in Peru is simply of huge relief that they have been rescued alive.
Mining accounts for more than half of exports from Peru, which is the world’s second largest producer of copper, zinc and silver and the sixth producer of gold.
Yet although Peru is home to some of the world’s largest corporate mines, there is also a booming informal sector of artisanal mining that accounts for sales of an estimated $2 billion a year, according to the Society of Mining and Energy of Peru.
Health and safety regulations are routinely flouted. Ecologists also accuse illegal and unlicensed miners of causing massive environmental damage, particularly in the Peruvian Amazon where a gold rush has seen some 50,000 miners flood into the pristine rainforests of the Madre de Dios region.
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The president addressed the epidemic of illegal and unlicensed mining as he surveyed the triumphant scene in Ica, demanding that all mines operate in compliance with the law and with all the necessary permits, including for the miners’ own benefit.
“I call on them [the miners] to formalize, so that they receive training, so that they work in safer conditions because, analyzing this, this has been the result of a set of human errors,” Humala said.
“Informality resulted in this lamentable accident. Happily, we have been able to correct these errors and today we have them here [the rescued miners] alive.”
(Below is footage of the rescue by TV Peru posted on CNN).