One of the most devastating mining disasters ever occurred on August 5, 2010 in the San Jose gold and copper mine located in the Atacama Desert, which is about 30 miles north of Copiapo in northern Chile. As the result of a substantial cave-in 33 miners were trapped.
The cave-in should not have been a surprise. The mine was 121 years old at the time and had had a history of safety violations. These violations had been responsible for several accidents, including eight deaths. The owners of the mine had been fined and required to effect various repairs and safety upgrades. But, due to carelessness, corruption, bribery of officials, and/or lack of follow-up by mining inspectors these had either been completed inadequately or not at all. Nevertheless, mining operations had continued.
In view of the foregoing, little hope was held out for the miners. Most people thought that they had not survived the cave-in. When it was discovered that they had, indeed, survived the cave-in, rescue attempts began in earnest. It became a race to rescue them before their air, food and water ran out.
What followed was truly compelling. People all over the world agonized with the miners’ families and loved ones. At first, few people thought they could survive until they could be rescued. But, the group pulled together. Later, we learned that they had followed a strict system of rationing, which enabled their meager supplies to last. In addition, everything was decided by democratic vote, so that all of them had a stake in the situation.
Many of us followed the story closely for the entire 69 days until they were finally rescued. Most dramatic of all was the manner in which the miners returned to the surface. The rescuers had only been able to dig a narrow shaft. Then, they lowered down a capsule in which only one person could fit at a time. Over 1 billion people worldwide watched on live tv as they came up one by one. The last one up was the shift foreman, Luis Urzua (played by Lou Diamond Phillips in the movie). They all made it!
Everyone rejoiced in the rescue.
- Doctors marveled at how well the miners had coped physically.
- Clergy arranged a multi-denominational mass for the miners and their families. Tragedy almost struck when a swarm of reporters and cameramen accidentally pushed and frightened Omar Reygadas’ two-year old great-granddaughter. He told the reporters that he had had many nightmares since the ordeal, “but the worst nightmare is all of you.”
- They were treated to various gifts, including cash, a trip to Disneyland, a cruise of the Greek Islands and an eight-day tour of the Holy Land.
- One of them, Daniel Herrera, even met his wife as a direct result of the ordeal. While watching the saga on tv a German woman saw Mr. Herrera and fell in love. She contacted him on line and eventually, they got married.
- Even President Pinera got into the act. He saw an opportunity to capitalize on the miners’ notoriety and, like any good politician, he took it. He hosted a reception for them at the Presidential Palace and invited them to play an exhibition soccer match against a government team.
Unfortunately, the aftermath has not been so rosy. Once the cameras and worldwide attention went elsewhere, problems began to surface. Many of them remain unresolved to this day.
- In 2013 the Chilean government announced that it was terminating its investigation into the cave-in with no criminal charges being filed against the owners. Obviously, this was met with disbelief and widely criticized. One of the most vociferous critics was Laurence Golborne, the former mining minister (played by Rodrigo Santoro in the movie). At the very least, it does not speak well for the integrity of the Chilean justice system. A civil suit, however, is still pending.
- The miners have been “blacklisted” from working in mines. Mr Reygadas feels that their notoriety has been working against them. “If there’s ever a problem everyone will immediately find out about it since we get a lot of press.” Some of them, like Mr. Urzua, who secured a better mining job, and Mr. Sepulveda, who runs a construction business and a charitable foundation, have landed on their feet, but most have not, which has led to severe depression and other emotional problems for them.
- Mario Sepulveda (played by Antonio Banderas in the movie) has been outspoken as to the miners’ treatment. “The majority of us are very bad in terms of emotional health. [P]sychiatrically and psychologically we were badly treated.”
- Several of the miners have filed a civil suit claiming they were tricked into signing away their royalties pertaining to the collapse and subsequent rescue. Apparently, some signed the controversial document, which was in English, and others didn’t, so the suit has pitted the two groups against each other.
One can’t help but contrast the fate of the miners with what it would have been had the collapse occurred in the US. But, that is another subject for, perhaps, another blog.