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33 miners buried alive in Atacama Desert

Chileans have been holding their breath in anguish since last Thursday, when 33 miners were buried alive after part of a gold and copper mine in northern Chile collapsed, trapping them 2,600 feet underground. Last night, the government finally admitted that it would be difficult to find them alive.

It has been impossible to make any contact with the miners since the accident August 5 in the San Jose mine, a medium-sized mine in the Atacama Desert owned by the San Esteban Mining Company.

The government — which quickly mobilized experts and machinery for rescue efforts to the location, about 500 miles north of Santiago, the capital — expects to make its first contact this weekend after days of drilling towards a tiny refuge where they are presumed to be.

If this contact is successful and the miners are discovered alive, they could be provided with food, water, oxygen and illumination, but the actual rescue could take weeks or even months, government officials have said.

Their relatives have set up camp outside the mine in the desert — where temperatures at night can drop to zero — and are clinging to the hope of finding them in the refuge. So have mining experts and technicians and the government, which are all working under the presumption they are huddled in a refuge stocked with water and canned food.

However, no one really knows exactly where the men are, since at the time of the accident, they were making their way out of the mine for lunch. There is no information about whether any were injured or killed, if they have run out of oxygen, if the food and water was actually in the refuge, or if any even made it there.

A miner who suffered the amputation of his leg in that same mine in July said in a radio interview this week that the refuge is not what officials are painting it to be: it is only six by 16 feet large and conditions are precarious.

Emergency committees have been working around the clock, as have experts and machinery provided by the State-owned copper giant Codelco. Mining Minister Laurence Golborne has frequently been on site, and broke down in tears when the first attempt to drill an opening through a chimney two days after the accident caused part of the mine to cave in again.

The San Jose mine has been in operations for more than 120 years and is in evident phase of exhaustion, with permanent cracking and leaking, bad ventilation and general instability. It has been plagued with accidents and its owners have refused to upgrade its safety systems.

The San Esteban Mining Company has often been accused by mining unions of disregarding safety regulations. Its executives were charged for involuntary manslaughter in 2007 after the death of a miner a year earlier. The charges were dropped after a compensatory agreement was reached with the worker’s family, but the mine was ordered closed until the company was able to fulfill safety requirements.

But for reasons no one has yet to explain, the mine reopened in 2008, even though the company had not complied with safety standards — among them, building an alternative evacuation route.

Three heads have already fallen, a congressional committee is investigating the conditions that made the accident possible, including faulty supervision, and the government has promised a thorough investigation into responsibilities.

President Sebastian Pinera dismissed Alejandro Vio, director of Sernageomin, the government agency in charge of supervising and enforcing safety standards in Chile’s mines, the regional director for Atacama of the agency, Rodolfo Diaz, and another top Sernageomin official.

Sernageomin employees and executives claim that it is impossible for them to supervise all the mines in Chile, one of the world’s top copper producers, with the scant resources allocated to them. Diaz, the former regional director, says they have only four supervisors for the 2,000 mines in the Atacama region, where almost half Chile’s mines are located.

However, senator Jaime Orpis, of the congressional Mining Commission, said that the 2010 budget almost doubled the funds for Sernageomin this year so they could count with enough supervisors. But for some reason, said Orpis, the agency did not hire any more.