08.24.10

The Miners' Miracle Message

For almost three weeks, 33 miners have been trapped underground in Chile. Dom Phillips reports on the remarkable messages they sent through a hole that told the country they were still alive.

“Dear Lila, I’m fine. Thanks to God I will come out soon, patience and faith. God is great,” read the note from Mario Gómez, a 63-year-old miner trapped along with 32 others for 18 days deep underground, after a tunnel collapsed.

Written to his wife Lilian from almost half a mile below the harsh Atacama Desert, and attached to a probe rescuers had managed to poke through a tiny hole they had drilled, the note was hailed for its simple elegance.

Gómez “made the whole of Chile cry with a letter,” read the headline in the tabloid Las Últimas Noticias.

“The whole country had no hope of finding them alive, so it really was a miracle and we all cried,” said Karin Morales.

News that all 33 missing miners were still alive, trapped in the San José copper mine near Copiapó in the north of Chile, was greeted with jubilation—even as authorities warned they could be trapped down there for four months.

Relatives who had set up a camp they called "Esperanza"—hope—sang the national anthem. Spontaneous street parties erupted in the capital Santiago. Cries of “viva Chile” were heard, and flags were waved.

Coming months after much of Chile was hit by a devastating earthquake that killed more than 500 and made 200,000 homeless, the men’s survival is being taken as symbolic of the indomitable Chilean spirit.

"This event has provoked an essence of unity and salvation," said Marcelo Conrado, who works on cruise liners from Santiago. "If you think about the fact that Chile has began the post-earthquake reconstruction process, this has given a greater impulse to the idea 
that we can make it regardless of the obstacles."

“The whole country had no hope of finding them alive, so it really was a miracle and we all cried,” said Karin Morales, who survived the earthquake and tsunami in the southern city of Talcahuano with her family. “Imagine the spiritual strength of these men. It’s incredible.”

After seven failed attempts to reach the men by drilling a hole, hopes had otherwise been fading. Rescuers blamed inaccurate company maps but on Sunday a camera descended and showed dramatic images of their faces in the gloom.

The men sent up brief notes attached to the probe saying they had managed to reach a safety hole the size of a small apartment.

Having arrived by helicopter, a beaming President Sebastián Piñera confirmed the news and waved one of the messages. “We are well and in a refuge,” it read. “The 33.” But celebrations were tempered by warnings that it could take up to four months to get the men out.

And as attention turned to the characters of the men being hailed as heroes, Mario Gómez, a miner since the age of 12, was being singled out as a leader of the trapped miners.

“He hasn’t just worked in a mine, which is brutal work,” his wife told reporters. “He has slept in the outdoors, covered in cardboard boxes, so I knew that in these moments he wouldn’t let his companions get defeated.”

Gómez appeared to be ready for the wait. “Even if we have to wait months to communicate,” he wrote, “I want to tell everyone that I'm good and we'll surely come out OK.”

Rescuers have already begun sending supplies and water down the hole. The men had managed to recharge their headlamps using the batteries from a digger and according to Gómez, had found water nearby.

And Mario Gómez and his fellow miners will need all the strength they can find if it does take until Christmas to bore a hole big enough to hoist them out one by one. A team of psychologists at the mine head will play a crucial role.

“The exchange of messages with families helps to keep morale high,” psychologist Ana Arón, an expert in crisis situations from Chile’s Catholic University, told the El Mercurio newspaper. “An essential problem will be the psychological aftereffects,” said Health Minister Jaime Mañalich.

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the driest place on Earth. Apart from the tourism found further north, in dusty little towns like San Pedro de Atacama, mining is one of the few industries this starkly beautiful 600-mile expanse of sand, rock, and dry salt basins has.

The story of one of the other trapped miners illustrates this stark, economic reality. Fifty-three-year-old Franklin Lobos was a professional soccer player who even represented Chile in the 1984 Olympic Games. But after retiring from the sport he had gone to work in the mine.

“Franklin Lobos went down the mine to keep his family,” Manuel Rodríguez, former coach of Cobresal, one of the teams Lobos played for, told Chilean news site noticiasweb.cl. “Cobresal never paid big wages.”

Copper mining is the backbone of Chile’s economy—the country is the world’s biggest producer—and the government had hoped to use a temporary increase in the mining tax to fund reconstruction after February’s earthquake. But the measure was rejected by Congress.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, President Piñera sacked three members of Chile’s mining regulatory body, Sernageomin. It emerged that because of budget deficits, the organization only had 16 safety auditors to cover more than 4,500 mines. In Atacama, only three auditors cover more than 800 mining areas, said the Santiago Times.

Atacama senator Isabel Allende criticized the regulatory body, the La Tercera newspaper reported, saying that the mine had suffered other accidents and been closed for “lack of security” in 2007, only to reopen in 2008.

In July this year, a government inspection warned of “failure of fortification work” and fined the company. Questions are being asked about why the mine had not been shut down earlier. "Most people believe the company is to blame for the disaster, along with the government bodies that are supposed to oversee workers' well being and working conditions," said Conrado.

In his letter to his wife, Mario Gómez also wrote: “The company needs to modernize.” Chilean satirical magazine The Clinic published an interview with former miner Ivan Toro, who lost his leg in an accident at the same San José mine in 2001 and criticized safety procedures.

“They were making us work in terribly dangerous places,” Toro told the magazine. The interview was also printed in Chile’s English language newspaper, the Santiago Times.

A lawyer for the company, Hernán Tuane, told the local El Diario de Atacama newspaper that mine bosses may have to file for bankruptcy because of the cost of the rescue. “We don’t have the cash flow necessary to sustain the obligations, because as you have seen that the mine is paralyzed,” Mr Tuane said.

British journalist Dom Phillips moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2007 to write his book Superstar DJs Here We Go (Random House/Ebury 2009) and works as a correspondent covering news, economics, and celebrity. He now writes for The Times, People, Financial Times, and Grazia.