It was a story that gripped not only the nation, but the entire world. A cave-in at a Chilean copper and gold mine left 33 men unaccounted for – and nobody knew if they were alive or dead. To make matters worse, the mine lay in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest and most inhospitable areas of the world.
And yet, against all odds, this became a story about hope.
The South American country of Chile has a rich geology which has produced a strong mining industry. In 2019, Chile was the world’s largest producer of copper, iodine and rhenium, as well as large amounts of lithium, molybdenum, silver, salt, potash, sulfur and gold.
A lot of these metal and mineral deposits are found in the inhospitable environs of the Atacama Desert – and it was there, about 45 km or 30 miles from the city of Copiapo, that the San José copper and gold mine was opened in 1889. From 1957 onwards, it was operated by the San Esteban Mining Company, headquartered in Santiago.
Workers at the mine came from far and wide; mining in Chile pays well, and the San José mine paid better than most. However, the men toiling underground there had no illusions about the reasons for their higher salaries – the company had to pay well to get workers into an unsafe environment.
Whilst mining is often considered to be the most dangerous profession, that general risk is not what I’m referring to here. Many of the risks involved in mining have been mitigated by modern technology and safer practices – but these were not in place at San José.
Between 2004 and 2010, the company received no less than 42 fines for breaching safety regulations at the mine, and these were not just minor breaches.
In 2004, a miner named Pedro Gonzalez was killed in a rock fall; the miner’s union petitioned for the closure of the mine, but were denied by a Chilean appeals court.
In 2006, truck driver Fernando Contreras was killed in another accident. Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny, the owners of the San Esteban mining company, were charged with involuntary manslaughter over this incident, but charges were dropped after they agreed to pay $170,000 in compensation to the family.
In the meantime, death had visited the San José mine once more. A rock explosion in January 2007 killed a geologist named Manuel Villagran, and the mine was ordered to be closed by Sernageomin, the government agency responsible for mine safety.
These incidents should have brought this story to an end before it ever began, but the mine re-opened in 2008 despite not implementing the safety improvements demanded by Sernageomin.
On July the 5th, 2010, the fact that conditions hadn’t improved was graphically demonstrated when a huge block of rock fell on miner Gino Cortés. He survived, but at the cost of his left leg. He counted himself lucky.
The mine itself was constructed like a chaotic corkscrew, descending into the mountain. From the entrance, 720 metres (2,362 feet) above sea level, a large tunnel known as the Ramp began with several switchbacks, before opening out into a spiral. Five metres or 16 feet wide and just as tall, it allowed the miners to drive large trucks and other heavy machinery deep into the mine.
The different working levels of the mine, stretching away from the Ramp, were identified by their height above sea level – so the lower the number, the deeper the level.
On the 5th of August, 2010, the men of A Shift, under shift supervisor (or jefe de turno) Luis Urzua, were working as far down as level 40. It could take as much as forty minutes to drive the five miles back up to the surface, so most of the breaks in their 12 hour shift would be taken in the Refuge, or El Refugio, an enclosed and reinforced space at Level 90.
Some of the crew that morning had expressed specific concerns; beyond the usual acknowledgement that the mine was “complicated”. Yonni Barrios spoke to the general manager, Carlos Pinilla, about unusual noises they were hearing. He was told not to worry; “the mountain is just settling”.
Mario Goméz, on his way into the mine at around noon, passed driver Raul Villegas, who was on his way out. Villegas told him there was “smoke” coming from Level 190. When Goméz drove through that area, he told himself it was just dust, which is far from unusual in a mine.
It was shortly before 2pm when a terrible noise shook the mountain.
Villegas, the driver who had seen the “smoke” earlier, was on his way out of the mine once more with a full load of rock.
“I felt an expansive wave, like when there is a dynamite explosion. The truck’s engine almost went off.”
As a cloud of dust enveloped his truck, he burst out into the sunlight, safe and uninjured – but 33 men were still underground, unaccounted for.
Pablo Ramirez, the supervisor of the night shift, got a call from Pinilla’s secretary at around 2pm, telling him only that there was “a problem” with the Ramp.
He arrived at around 4:30pm to see clouds of dust still spewing out of the mine’s entrance. At around 5pm, Pinilla, Ramirez and some other men braved the dust clouds in order to investigate the Ramp, driving a pick-up truck into the mine. At level 450, they discovered a large crack, two inches wide, all the way across the floor – and at level 320, 2.8 miles or 4.5km from the mine’s entrance, they suddenly found their path blocked by a massive wall of solid rock.
Ramirez would later recall his manager’s reaction.
“He’s usually a jerk, real macho when it comes to those things. But he started crying, right away.”
Pinilla himself said, “I thought, no I knew for certain that someone had to be dead.”
For some reason, it was not until 7.22 that evening that the authorities were actually notified of the incident by the owners of the mine. The call eventually reached the disaster office of Chile’s Ministry of the Interior, and six men from the Chilean Police’s Special Operations Group were dispatched to the mine.
By the time they entered, the crack in the floor at level 450 had doubled in size. According to Ramirez, he and Pinilla didn’t inform them of this, for fear that knowledge would lead them to call off the nascent rescue.
Meanwhile, the families of the missing miners heard nothing from the San Esteban Mining Company. Some heard news of the accident through the grapevine, as is common in such tight knit communities, while others heard it on the radio or the television.
Those early reports were vague and often inaccurate. It’s testament to the lack of organisation at the mine that the first list of missing miners included the names of two men who were safely above ground – and left off two who were not.
Relatives first gathered at the hospital in Copiapo, and then, when no injured men arrived there, at the San Jose mine itself. Mining frequently runs in families, and a number of former or current miners who were related to the missing reported for rescue duties, giving false names when they heard that relatives were not to be allowed inside.
One of those was Jose Vega, whose 31 year old son Alex was among the missing. He described what he saw to documentary filmmakers.
“The floor was cracked, the ceiling was cracked, the walls were cracked. Rocks were falling from everywhere. The truth is it was frightening. Very frightening.”
It had quickly been established that the Ramp was completely blocked by a huge chunk of diorite. It would only later be realised just how huge this chunk was; about 550 feet, or 168 metres tall, and weighing 770,000 tons — “twice the weight of the Empire State Building.”
Even without knowing that, it was obvious that they wouldn’t easily be able to drill or blast through it. Diorite is rated at 5.5 – 6 on the Mohs hardness scale; harder than ordinary steel, at 4.5 to 5.
The other option for rescuers was the ventilation shafts. In order to keep air circulating through the deeper levels of the mine, there were a number of vertical shafts connecting the various twists of the Ramp. They acted as chimneys and, in an emergency like this, were also intended to act as escape routes, with ladders running through them.
Unfortunately, those ladders were just one of the safety measures that the owners had failed to implement.
That didn’t mean that they were useless, though; with ropes and specialist climbing equipment, a man could abseil or be lowered down the shafts to reach the lower levels.
After a long wait, as Friday night turned into Saturday morning, a team of rescuers prepared to descend in this way. Most were police officers from the special operations group known as GOPE, or members of a local mining rescue team, but one was an employee of the San Jose mine – Ramirez, the night shift supervisor.
From the blockage at level 320, they were able to navigate the shafts down to level 295, and prepared to descend another to reach level 268, the whole time painfully aware of the danger around them. Policeman Mario Segura said, “‘I knew we had to keep searching, but the sound of that mountain, it was like rocks screaming and crying.”
The sight that confronted the rescue team crushed all hope of rescuing the men that way. Ramirez saw cracks in the walls of the chimney, evidence that they were coming apart under the weight of the massive collapse and, instead of the Ramp, at the bottom of the chimney he saw only a pile of debris ready to collapse.
“Anyone who passed through there would be in danger of being stuck if all those rocks came tumbling down,” he said.
He called out to be pulled back up – and did so just in time. Another collapse severed the communications cable they had running back to the entrance, and caused the walls of the shafts to collapse. The team had to scramble to get Ramirez out in time.
It was 3pm on Saturday the 7th of August – just over two days since the initial collapse – when they finally reached the entrance to deliver the bad news.
Laurence Golborne, Chile’s Minister of Mining, had arrived at 2 o’clock that morning, cutting short an official visit to Ecuador in order to oversee the rescue attempts. This was somewhat unusual, as the government would usually leave mining companies to run rescue operations themselves, but the mine’s owners were not speaking to the relatives or the gathering media. This left Golborne to step up as official spokesman – and meant that he had to break the news to the families. Using a loudspeaker to address the crowd of relatives, reporters and TV crews, he began professionally enough, explaining that the rescuers had been forced to flee the mine after another collapse, and that they were “trying to find other techniques, other mechanisms to reach them.”
However, he was overcome by the emotion of the distraught relatives; he later spoke of a knot in his throat as he tried to explain that they had to think of the rescuers’ lives as much as the lost miners.
The rescue teams began to pack up and leave.
Carolina Lobos was one of those relatives. Her father, Franklin, a minor celebrity who had played professional football between 1980 and 1995, was amongst the missing. She said later, “When I saw the GOPE guys go, the rescuers go, I thought if they are going, it is because the miners are all dead. I cried. We all cried.”
It may have seemed hopeless at that moment, but many of the mine’s workers were convinced that there was still a chance that the missing miners were alive – at least, some of them. Even with the vagaries of San José’s operations, the mine had a rhythm, and based on the time of the collapse they should have been working in the lowest levels of the mine. The collapse, huge as it obviously was, may not have reached that far. If they were lucky – if they hadn’t been driving out for their lunch break at the wrong moment – they could still be down there.
The Refuge, at level 90, had some food stores – although not anywhere near enough to feed 33 men for long – and they would have a supply of water, since it was used in large amounts by the drilling machines in the mine. Oxygen could be a problem, since the ventilation shafts were now closed, but if enough of the mine was still open to them, they wouldn’t run out for some time.
The relatives were determined not to let their loved ones be abandoned.
Lillian Ramirez, whose husband Mario Gomez was amongst the missing, said:
“I felt helpless and desperate. All the relatives went on strike and wanted to get the mine bosses with wooden sticks – like vandals. We made a human chain and told them that we were not going to let anyone leave the mine. The anger and desperation made me push a policeman… desperation makes you do many things… We really did not know what was happening.”
But, while the attempt to reach the men through the mine itself had been abandoned, hope had not.
On the way to Copiapo were convoys of equipment and workers from around the country; experts in drilling, and the machinery of their trade. If the route through the mine was inaccessible, they would just have to make a new one.
This had been done before; in 2002, nine coal miners were trapped in the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania by a flood. A shaft was drilled down to them from a neighbouring property, and all nine were successfully rescued. However, those men had been only 240 feet, or about 73 metres, below the surface. If the San José miners were indeed in The Refuge, that meant they were over two thousand feet, about 630m, below the entrance level; almost nine times as far.
Eduardo Hurtado, an operator with the drilling company Terraservice, arrived at the San José mine at 9am on Sunday morning, having driven more than 400 miles overnight.
“The situation felt chaotic and anarchic. No one was in charge.”
They knew that they wanted to drill to a passageway close to the refuge, so they found blueprints, and located a spot directly above to set up. A bulldozer was brought in to clear the area, as the drilling machinery would need to be placed on a flat surface. Before they finished, however, a geologist informed them that they’d have to move. Beneath their feet was a huge vacuum in the mountain, left behind by the collapse. It could have given way at any time.
Moving to a safe place meant that they now had to drill at an angle of 78 degrees. Hurtado said:
“It was going to be hard because of the angle. I could end up anywhere. It’s impossible to control exactly what the deviation will be.”
When drilling a long shaft, especially at an angle, there’s a number of factors that can cause the line of the shaft to deviate; a hard spot can make the drill bit bounce a little to one way or the other, and gravity will tend to pull it downwards. The deviation can be up to 5%; this doesn’t matter too much when they’re looking for a large mineral deposit, but this time, they were trying to hit a passageway no more than 32 feet, less than ten metres, wide. At this distance, a deviation of 5% would mean a drift of 100 feet, more than 30 metres, away from the target.
Several other teams set up nearby, each hoping to beat the odds and find this proverbial needle in a precarious haystack. They all knew that the chance of success was slight, but each was determined to try their best, many working in long shifts with little rest. When they did leave the drills to rest, the relatives of the missing cheered and applauded them, to thank them for their efforts.
Those relatives had started to gather outside the mine as soon as they got word of the accident- and many simply refused to leave.
Jeanette Vega, sister of Alex, said,
“We are not going to abandon my brother. As long as he is not out, no one moves from here despite the rain, the cold or the sun.”
As the days dragged on the makeshift camp grew, with more family members arriving, setting up tents for shelter, fires for warmth, and pictures of the trapped miners, with candles, to ensure nobody forgot why they were there. However, it was not all harmonious. Family tensions were brought to a head, partly by the stress of the situation, and partly because the camp brought them all together.
Most notably, and obsessed over by many of the more sensationalist media outlets, Yonni Barrios had a wife, who he did not live with, and a girlfriend, who he did live with, both waiting anxiously. His wife, Marta, even made attempts to have the girlfriend, Susana Valenzuela, excluded from the camp. Susana got in anyway, by pretending to be a cook.
Some, like Mario Sepulveda’s wife Elvira Valdivia, made a compromise. Fearing for her teenage daughter’s mental health amidst the chaos of the camp, she forced the mining company to pay for a hotel in Copiapo for them; close enough to be on hand, but far enough for some respite. She continued her accounting work from a laptop at the camp during the day, and returned to the hotel at night.
Whether they stayed at the camp full time or not, the families were all convinced that their men would survive. Elvira said later, “I knew that Mario wasn’t going to let himself die. No, Mario is the type of person who will eat someone to survive if it comes to that. And if he had to eat mud to survive, he’d eat that, too.”
Carmen Rosa was told early on that her husband Luis Urzua was already dead, crushed in the personnel truck alongside Franklin Lobos.
“If he was dead they would have brought out his body already through the chimney,” she said. She gathered other terrified wives and girlfriends who had heard similar tales, and told them to be strong and pray.
Susana Valenzuela said that she knew Yonni “… was down there, fighting for his life… He was fighting. I could see him down there, buried, buried in mud.”
One of the most prominent residents of the camp- which came to be called Camp Esperanza, or Camp Hope – was Maria Segovia, older sister of Dario Segovia. She had set up her tent right beside the entrance, and so naturally became a first point of contact for those arriving with supplies or questions. She spoke often to the media, and to officials concerned with the rescue, and was regarded as the camp’s unofficial Mayor.
After a heavy rainstorm on the 11th of August – an unusual occurrence in the normally dry Atacama Desert- the camp became more organised. The Chilean army established a flat and more sheltered area for the tents, and brought in portable toilets and a field kitchen.
Carmen Rosa, who taught catechism classes at their church, helped to set up a shrine close to the field kitchen, with a statue of the Virgin Mary at its centre.
“We made a small place where people could go and let go of their pain, where they could pray for the miners, and start to forget that they might be dead.”
In addition to the tents, there were now shipping containers used as offices, motor homes which provided a base for the journalists, and fire trucks and ambulances on standby in case of an emergency. Arrangements were even made to provide schooling at the camp, since the miners’ families had so many children with them.
Occasionally, the noise of the drills stopped – due to broken drill bits or other technical issues – and the women of the camp, led by Maria Segovia, were quick to respond. They banged pots and pans to attract attention, and demanded answers. They weren’t there simply to wait, but to ensure that the rescue carried on, that every last possible effort was made to save their men.
Meanwhile, although President Sebastian Piñera and Minister Golborne were both determined to do something, neither actually knew much about mines. Golborne came from a retail background, and had stepped into the role only five months earlier. Although he had assured critics at the time that he was “a fast learner”, this was beyond anything he had expected.
They turned to Codelco, a state-run mining conglomerate, and from their ranks chose André Sougarret, who was at the time the manager of the world’s largest underground mine, El Teniente. He was summoned to the presidential palace and whisked away to Copiapo on the presidential jet to take charge, arriving at 4pm on Monday the 9th.
His job was to organise the chaos, co-ordinate the different drilling teams with their differing techniques and technology to give them the greatest chance of success.
Late on the night of Sunday, the 15th of August, the Terraservice team sent out word to the other teams to stop drilling; they had hit an empty space, and needed silence to listen for signs of life. Their drill had stopped 504m from the surface, so it was still a long way above the refuge, but as they pressed their ears to the metal several of the workers thought they could hear a rhythmic banging. The drill was withdrawn from the shaft, and a remote camera was lowered down. This painfully slow process took five hours – and when it finally reached the bottom, Sougarret and the drill operators gathered around the monitor to see… Nothing.
It was an empty cavern, devoid of life.
Raúl Dagnino from Terraservice told documentary filmmakers how disappointing it was for the crew.
“We normally work for finding minerals, you know, we never drill to find lives. And you see all this big camp and everybody there, people crying, it’s getting critical. More days, less chances. We have to keep drilling until we hit a target.”
It was Tuesday, the 17th of August, when one of the drills first passed the 600m mark. It had been aimed so that it would have three chances to hit a tunnel – and it missed all three. When it reached 730m the following day, that shaft had to be abandoned.
An unnamed official said that,
“The driller was so emotionally invested he couldn’t stop, even though we knew he’d gone too far already.”
Sougarret explained this failure to the families and media, saying:
“This mine did not have the standards from which we could base engineering work. A mine has to file the monthly updates, to have blueprints of all the working areas; those were not there. That’s why the blueprints did not coincide with reality; the topographic information was not precise.”
Meanwhile, the Terraservice team rebounded from their disappointment and started a new borehole, designated 10B, before dawn that same Tuesday. It was their third attempt to find the miners, and this time they had decided to sacrifice speed for accuracy, slowing down from their usual 12 to 15 rotations per minute to just six, and stopping every hundred metres for a topographer to lower a gyroscope and check their progress. It went against their instincts; with lives at stake, it’s natural to want to go as quickly as possible, but with so many attempts having missed their target it seemed that slower might be safer.
The operators alternated, working twelve hour shifts, for the next five days, Then, at about 6am on the morning of the 22nd, drill operator Nelson Flores noticed a stuttering in the drill; a sign it had hit a different texture. Then, abruptly, the pressure dropped to zero. He had broken through.
Once again, they pressed their ears to the steel at the top of the shaft. Flores would later recall hearing a tapping that started off frantically fast, then slowed, “as if the viejos down there were getting tired.”
But they thought they heard tapping the last time.
Lowering the drill further allowed them to measure the height of the space it was in – and it matched the height of the passageway they were aiming for. Furthermore, the tapping not only continued, but changed in its rhythm, as if it were trying to spell out morse code or play music. Supervisor Hurtado said, “At that point, we had no doubt. There was someone alive down there.”
Although under orders to keep the news quiet until they had definite proof, word leaked out to the families. Even if it hadn’t, the sudden silence of the drills would no doubt have drawn their attention anyway.
Golborne arrived quickly, and the president was soon en route, but it would still be several hours before they learned anything new. Pulling the drill out of its long shaft took time.
It was two in the afternoon by the time the last tube could be pulled out, covered in mud – and something else. Red paint, which the drillers quickly confirmed had not been there when they sent it down.
As Souggaret put it,
“That was the first sign of life. At least one of them was alive.”
Excitement grew as the last pieces were withdrawn, and Golborne spotted some rubber tubing wrapped around the drill bit. Beneath it was some soggy paper. Although someone told him not to unfold it until it was dry, he didn’t wait.
“The drill broke through at Level 94, at three meters from the front. On one side of the roof, close to the right wall. Some water is falling. We are in the Refuge. Drills have passed behind us …May God illuminate you. A saludo to Clara and my family. Mario Gómez.”
Another note began, “Dear Lilia.” As it appeared to be personal, not much of it was read aloud.
However, it was the third note that would become famous. It had almost been missed amidst the mud and the cables used to attach it. It was a piece of graph paper, and scrawled upon it in large red letters were the words, “Estamos y bien en el refugio – Los 33” [treinta y tres]. Translated to English: “we are all well in the refuge, the 33.”
Screams and shouts of elation quickly spread across the camp. Rescuers literally jumped for joy and hugged each other. The note was held aloft by Golborne and by the president as they announced the incredible news to the waiting families, the media, and the world.
Golborne later said,
“In every corner of Chile, in every city, in every town, there was a celebration similar to the one taking place here.”
But the elation could not last. Reaching the men trapped in the mine meant they had won the first battle, but they still had to work out how to extract them – and, more importantly, how to keep them alive down there until they could do that.
When the initial collapse happened, the 33 men were not all together. They were scattered throughout the lower levels of the mine.
Three mechanics were working on a broken dumper at level 150; a fourth had just left in a pick-up truck to fetch drinking water from the Refuge. A group of miners were perforating rock at level 105, while others waited at level 100 for the personnel truck, which would take them out of the mine for lunch. Others waited at or near the Refuge itself, on level 90, while another group continued work nearby.
At level 60, a small crew was working on fortifying the roof of the tunnel, and right down at level 40, more than 2,000 vertical feet (600m) from the surface, a truck driver waited in his cab while ore was being loaded into his truck.
While Raul Villegas was fortunate enough to be driving out of the mine at the moment of collapse, Franklin Lobos had been driving in. He drove the personnel truck, so he was essentially the mine’s taxi driver. He was bringing miner Jorge Galleguillos down, and expecting to bring out a group of hungry men for their lunch.
At around level 190, Galleguillos saw what he thought was a white butterfly streak past the truck’s windshield. Moments later, the Ramp collapsed behind them, at that very spot.
Galleguillos later compared it to the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York.
“We were caught in an avalanche of dirt and dust. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.”
They descended through the collapse, with Galleguillos at one point leaving the truck to guide it, despite the rocks still falling around them, and slowly, carefully, made their way towards the refuge.
Further down, mechanics Raul Bustos and Richard Villarroel sheltered beneath the chassis of the 27 ton dumper, and Juan Carlos Aguilar clung on to a water pipe while the mountain shook and rocks fell around them. Juan Illanes, the mechanic in the truck, had been stopped by a slab of fallen rock just past level 135; once the shaking had subsided, he tried to drive back up, but was stopped by clouds of dust.
Those who were actively working couldn’t hear the initial crash of the collapse. The machinery they used was very noisy, and they wore ear defenders to muffle the sound. However, they could certainly feel the blast that followed. The pressure squeezed their bodies and plugged up their ears.
José Ojeda, who was working at level 105, described the sound of the collapse as,
“… terrifying, like the rocks are screaming in pain.”
Those closest to the refuge ran quickly for its shelter; then, after waiting some fifteen or twenty minutes for the sound to subside, they set out to walk up the Ramp. They hoped to make their way straight out to the surface.
Supervisors Luis Urzua and Florencio Avalos, along with Mario Sepulveda, went further down into the mine instead. They knew there were more men working lower down, and had a responsibility to them.
Dario Segovia was one of the men working on roof fortifications. He described the impact of the shockwave as
“… like getting boxed in the ears. It felt like it went through your head.”
Carlos Mamani was soon carrying all of them, on the front loader machine he operated, up towards the Refuge. The supervisors passed them and carried on down to warn the men at the very bottom, driver Mario Gomez and loader operator Omar Reygadas, and bring them up.
Even they had felt the explosion. Reygadas said,
“I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head. My ears exploded.’
The men who had already left the Refuge were confronted with new explosions and more shaking.
“We were a pack of sheep, and the mountain was about to eat us.”
Another shock wave knocked many of them to the floor, including Victor Zamora, who fell face first and lost some teeth in the process.
With Gomez, Reygadas and the fortifying crew, the supervisors drove upwards, meeting the men from the refuge and picking them up too.
Sepúlveda used a flashlight to guide the truck through the dust as they went up, collecting the mechanics, and eventually meeting up with Lobos. Most of the men transferred into the personnel truck, and they continued up through the dust. They soon found the tunnel littered with too many rocks for the truck to continue, so they all got out to advance on foot.
They were finally stopped around level 190, where Galleguillos had seen his “butterfly”, by a curtain of rock. Urzua described it as, ” like the stone they put over Jesus’ tomb.” It was obviously massive, but they had no way of knowing just how big it was. However, some of the miners theorised that the collapse started at Level 340, where a large crack had appeared months earlier. That would mean at least ten levels of the mine had fallen.
There was a small opening at the bottom, and Alex Vega, one of the smallest in the mine at 5’3″ or about 160cm, insisted on trying to squeeze through. It could have collapsed at any moment, crushing him, but he later said,
“At that moment, I was feeling all this adrenaline. I didn’t think, or measure the risk. “
He managed to crawl about twenty feet in, but there was no way through, and he was forced to crawl back out.
While most of the men returned to the relative security of the Refuge, a small group continued to look for a way out.
The ventilation shafts should, in theory, have had ladders allowing them to climb up to a higher level, hopefully bypassing the obstruction. However, Urzua had doubts.
“Climbing up that chimney wasn’t going to work. None of those guys were thinking about safety. And you’ll notice that the guys who went up there first weren’t really miners.”
Sepulveda- an electrical specialist – and mechanic Raul Bustos were first to climb, using a platform lifter to reach the bottom of a chimney at level 180. There was a ladder there, rebar driven into the rock, giving the men some hope. Foreman Avalos and miner Carlos Barrios followed them up, but were forced to scurry back down when a slab of rock came loose. Bustos held it in place with his back until the others were clear, then let it crash down.
Sepulveda and Bustos made it to the top of the chimney – and saw the same curtain of rock blocking the Ramp. Sepulveda said later,
“At that moment I put death in my head and decided I would live with it.”
The next chimney up from that point also proved useless – instead of a ladder, there was only a cable hanging there, meaning there was no way to get any further up. Returning to the bottom of the chimney, they broke the news to the others. Urzua spoke later of his feelings at that moment.
“My problem as the jefe de turno was I knew we were screwed. Florencio and I knew this, but we couldn’t tell that to anyone. You practically had your hands tied from doing anything. And you start imagining things that are part of the reality of mining.”
That reality was that they couldn’t get out, and it was obviously going to be difficult for anyone to reach them. If they weren’t found within about a week, the rescue was likely to be abandoned, and then they would starve in the dark.
Hunger was already on the mind of the other men. They had been working hard all morning, and had missed lunch. They wanted to eat – and they knew there was food in the Refuge.
Avalos had asked Yonni Barrios to guard the provisions until they got back from the chimney, but faced with two dozen hungry men, he had offered little opposition.
Victor Zamora and one of the others tried to break open the emergency provisions box; when it was obvious that they weren’t going to give up, Lobos stepped forward with the key.
Once unlocked, Zamora and some of the others eagerly pounced on milk and cookies.
He said later,
” I was just hungry. It was time to eat. I didn’t give it much importance.”
Not all of them joined in, though, and this incident highlighted the many ways the group could be split, with one – a southerner – later saying,
“It was the northerners that did it. They only thought of saving themselves at that moment. Fresh guys. They wanted everything. They never thought that we’d be trapped so long.”
When the others returned with their bad news, and realised what had happened with the provisions, they were blunt about the potential consequences.
Avalos told them,
“With what you guys just ate, we all could have survived three days down here… whoever ate that food, let them get something out of it. May it serve them well.”
Now that they had established their situation, and were all together, it was time to take stock. They needed to know exactly what supplies they had, and ration them carefully.
Considering that the emergency provisions were supposed to sustain 25 men for 48 hours, the supplies were somewhat random and disappointing.
The locker had been stocked with a can of salmon, a can of peaches, a can of peas, 18 cans of tuna, 24 litres of milk (8 of which had already spoiled), 93 packets of cookies – four cookies to a pack, and at least ten of those had just been eaten- and just ten bottles of water.
They were also now able to do a head count. There were 33 men; more than a usual shift, as several had been working overtime, and the number struck many of them as significant. After all, Jesus Christ was said to have been 33 years old when he died.
Religious faith would come to be very important to the 33; just as it was to their families above ground. Amongst the trapped men was an Evangelical preacher, Jose Henriquez, and although the men were not all the same denomination, they came together for regular prayer throughout their captivity, a factor which many commentators would say was vital to their survival. As well as prayer, these daily gatherings gave them an opportunity to apologise to each other for lost tempers and other transgressions, keeping the air between them at least figuratively clean.
The other mainstay of their new underground routine was of course, the rationing of the food. Mario Sepulveda was put in charge of this; he served a single meal – if you could call it that – at midday, consisting on that first day of one teaspoon of canned fish, with a bit of water added to make a sort of broth-like consistency, and two cookies. It was probably less than 300 calories each – and the recommended daily intake for an adult male is 2,500.
At one point, Ariel Ticona retrieved the cartons of milk which had spoiled, and drank them anyway. It somehow didn’t make him sick, and he is said to have joked that he would last longer than the others because of it.
They even cooked a kind of soup once, using the cover of an air filter from one of the machines as a pot, and building a campfire on level 135. This event was even recorded, using a cellphone that Jose Henriquez had with him. Claudio Acuña operated it, since Henriquez didn’t know how to work the camera, and Sepulveda became the presenter, saying; “Tuna with peas! Eight liters of water, one can of tuna, some peas. A little tiny fire here…. So that we can survive this situation!”
As time passed, the rations would become even more meagre, the daily meal becoming every other day, the servings even smaller. At one point, they shared a single slice of peach between all thirty three.
Villaroel would later say,
“We were getting eaten up, as we were working. We were moving, but not eating well. We started to eat ourselves up and get skinnier and skinnier. That is called cannibalism, a sailor down there said. My body was eating itself up.”
Water was available to them because it was needed by the drilling machines, to keep them from overheating. However, it was not clean; they used to wash their dirty gloves in it, and Sepulveda had even been known to jump into the water tank and use it as a bath.
“It had a bad taste. It had lots of oil, from the machines, but you had to drink it.”
And, while there was a large amount, it was still limited. Therefore, they spared none for washing; they would just have to get used to the smell.
This was not helped by the heat and humidity in the mine. At the beginning of their ordeal, the temperature, measured by a small digital thermometer in the Refuge, was 29.6° Celsius, or 85.3° Fahrenheit. At times, it would reach as much as 50° Celsius – 122° Fahrenheit – with humidity up to 95%. One of the miners later said,
“I’ve smelled corpses before, and after a while, it smelled worse than that.”
They would also have to deal with withdrawal; many of them were used to smoking and drinking on a regular basis, and they were now cut off from those habits.On top of that, several of the men had pre-existing medical issues. Mario Gomez had a silicosis cough, a common complaint amongst miners. José Ojeda was diabetic. Victor Zamora had lost several teeth, when he fell during the collapse. All they had by way of medical supplies was a small first aid kit in the Refuge, plus a couple of oxygen tanks.
There was a split in the group in those early days; some of the men were quite reasonably scared, feeling hopeless and defeated. The mountain around them was still making noises, and they were unwilling to leave the relative safety of the Refuge.
The others were intent on doing something; even though they had established that they couldn’t get out, they could still try to get a message to the surface, some indication that they were still alive down there. They set fire to a tire and an oil-soaked air filter at the base of a chimney; they lit a detonator cord stuffed into a rubber tube inside another. They used a front loader to try and clear rocks from one of the galleries, hoping to reveal a new opening, but the rocks fell as fast as they could move them. They drove one of the vehicles up the ramp, to the base of the massive diorite block, sounded its horn and banged its mechanical arm against the rock, stopping every so often to listen for a reply – but they heard nothing.
Light – or rather, the lack of it – was another problem. Each man was issued with a headlamp fitted to their hard hats, but the batteries could not last forever.
In this, Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani was the worst off, as he had forgotten his hard hat, leaving it in a locker on the surface. He had meant to retrieve it at lunchtime, but the collapse meant he never got the chance.
When you add to that the fact that it was literally his first day inside the mine- he’d had just one day of training topside prior- so he didn’t know any of the men he was trapped with, and a long history of antagonism between Chileans and Bolivians, the experience must have been unbelievably isolating. He would say later that he didn’t know who he could trust, however after several days of staying apart from the others, he was invited to join them in a game of dominoes, with Sepulveda announcing that,
“Down here with us, you’re as Chilean as the rest of us… You’re friends and brothers with all of us.”
The light issue was somewhat resolved by rigging up lights powered by vehicle batteries; however this still meant occasional bouts of darkness when those batteries, too, failed. However, it was discovered that they could recharge some of the batteries using the vehicles’ generators, and this was enough to keep the darkness at bay.
Victor Segovia decided to keep a diary while he was underground, and his entries reveal much about the atmosphere there. Early on, he wrote;
“There is a great sense of powerlessness. We don’t know if they’re trying to rescue us, or what’s going on outside, because here inside, we don’t hear any machines working or anything.”
That hopelessness is reinforced by an entry on the third day, addressed to his daughters.
“Girls, sadly destiny only allowed me to be with you until the fourth of August… I am weak, and very hungry. I’m suffocating… it feels like I’m going to go crazy.”
“Down here there is no day, only darkness and explosions,” he wrote. “We look like cavemen, full of soot, and we are skinny, which is very noticeable on most of us.”
Finally, after 78 hours (which surely felt like much more) there was a definite sign of hope – the sound of drilling in the distance. They thought they had felt or heard drills before, but they were faint, and quickly disappeared. This time, though, it continued, and got steadily louder. Rescue was on the way. They had not been abandoned.
“We are more relaxed. Down here we’re all going to be family. We’re brothers and friends because this isn’t the kind of thing that can happen to you twice.”
However, waiting still wasn’t easy.
“The drilling is going really slowly. God, when are you going to end this torment? I want to be strong but I have nothing left to give.”
It was around this time that the miners first discussed a pact of silence. When they were rescued, they would tell the full story only to their lawyers, not to the media, in order to ensure the best chance at suing the mine company for their suffering. Later, they agreed to include one author – Hector Tobar – whose book “The 33”, originally entitled “Deep Down Dark” became one of the most complete records of their time underground.
The Chilean Day of the Miner passed during their captivity; it would usually be a day of great celebration, but there was obviously no feast for them down there. Still, they raised their voices to sing the national anthem of Chile at the end of their daily meal, prayer and discussion. Segovia wrote that this made him forget, for a moment, that they were trapped there.
They tried to follow the sound of the drills, to pinpoint where they might break through, but it was difficult, and disheartening when the sounds stopped.
Edison Peña described this feeling.
“The silence just destroyed us. Because you would feel abandoned, alone. Without a positive sign, your faith collapses. Because faith isn’t totally blind. We’re vulnerable, we’re really a small thing. I knew what it was like to feel alone and helpless, to feel there was no way out. Because your faith empties out second by second, it doesn’t get stronger as the days go by.”
Omar Reygadas would later relate a story about how his faith was sustained. Lying on the ground outside the Refuge, he felt a squeezing and burning sensation in his arm and chest; he thought he was having a heart attack. But then, he felt a breeze. Using a cigarette lighter, he attempted to find the source of the cooler air, and others joined him. While they never found out where the air came from, something else did happen.
“I started to breathe well again. And when I had to walk back up to the Refuge, the breeze stayed with me all the way back.”
That breeze, according to Reygadas, would return every day at the same time, six o’clock in the evening. With no practical explanation, he accredited the breeze to the thirty-fourth miner; meaning the soul of every miner, the spirit of God.
“That little breeze would come and it would leave us calmer,” he said. “This can’t just be forgotten here.”
To pass the time, they made a checkers set from pieces of cardboard, and dominoes from a reflective plastic hazard triangle kept in Urzua’s truck. Some told stories – often about food, the topic heaviest on their minds – while others did at little as possible, reserving their energy.
Although the sound of the drills brought them hope, the rescue attempt also gave them an added problem. The water needed to cool the drills had to go somewhere – and, naturally, it went down, through the mountain, running through their makeshift encampment and turning the ground to mud.
And despair frequently followed the sounds of the drills, as they passed by, or stopped, without breaking through.
On August the 17th, Segovia wrote,
“They are starting to give up. I don’t think God would have saved us from the collapse just to let us die of starvation… The skin now hugs the bones of our faces and our ribs all show and when we walk our legs tremble.”
And on the 19th;
“We are getting desperate. One of the drills just went by the walls of the Refuge but it didn’t break through.”
One of the men described hearing the drill which passed below the lowest point of the mine as, “like a second death.”
They had prepared for a drill to break through; they knew they might not have much time before it was pulled back out to send the message that they were there. They had found red paint with which to paint the drill, large implements that they could bang on it with, and prepared letters to attach to it.
And finally, at 6am on the 22nd, the drill arrived.
Richard Villaroel and Jose Ojeda were the first to reach it. Villaroel, wielding a two foot wrench, hammered on the pipe until Juan Carlos Aguilar stopped him – they had to behave like miners, he said, and reinforce the ceiling so it wouldn’t collapse on them.
Mamani later said,
“It felt like a hand had punched through the rock and reached out to us.”
Henriquez simply said, “Dios existe” – God exists.
Painting the drill was difficult, due to the amount of water coming down the pipe with it, and the fact that the men had nothing that they could dry it with to make the paint stick. They did the best they could, and hoped. Their notes, a dozen in all, were packed in bits of plastic, electrical tape and rubber tubing, in an attempt to protect the paper against the water. And the whole time, they banged on the pipe like it was a pinata.
Four hours after it appeared, the drill ascended back up, and the men gathered around it to celebrate, but they didn’t have the energy to maintain this enthusiasm, and settled down to watch in turns.
Up on the surface, the rescuers assembled a camera, speaker and microphone to be lowered into the borehole, but not everybody was happy with the arrangements. Psychologist Alberto Iturra was there to advise the rescuers, and he suggested that the first person to speak to the trapped men should be mine supervisor Pablo Ramirez, a familiar voice to many of them. However, President Pinera was keen to speak to them, and Iturra was overruled.
In the end, it didn’t matter; the microphone didn’t work. Instead, the camera stared silently as Luis Urzua was summoned to speak to it. All the officials could see was Urzua’s eyes, close to the camera, and the lights of some of the others behind him.
The first conversation they had with the surface would be by telephone; at 2:30pm on the 23rd, they received an orange PVC tube trailing a telephone wire, with a handset receiver inside.
Golborne, on the surface, said “Attention, mine shift. The surface here.”
Edison Peña responded, “Mine here. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I hear you.” Golborne’s response set off a burst of cheers and applause from those around him.
Peña later said,
“I could hear this collection of people. And I heard this very firm voice… I broke down. I just wasn’t capable of speaking.”
The handset was passed to Urzua, while Golborne switched the phone on the surface to speaker. Urzua told them that the miners were “in good spirits”, waiting for rescue, but quickly added that they had already eaten what little food they had down there.
They were told that a doctor would be in touch soon, but Golborne wanted to convey the wider import of this moment.
“I want to tell you the entire country has been following you these last seventeen days. The entire country has participated in the rescue. Yesterday all of Chile celebrated. In all of the plazas, in all the corners of this country, people celebrated that we’d made contact with you.”
The miners cheered. It’s impossible to imagine what that statement meant to them. But there was something else they wanted to know. They asked about Raul Villegas, the driver. Did he make it out? When Golborne said that he had – that there was “not one injury or death to lament” – they cheered again.
Golborne also told them about the camp, that all of their loved ones were gathered above waiting and praying for them, then passed the handset to Andre Sougarret. He advised them to stay away from the rockfall blocking the ramp and the chimneys, since it could keep falling, and a representative of the president sent them his regards. The miners sang the national anthem before the call ended.
Having barely avoided starvation for the last seventeen days, the miners were all desperate for a good meal, and excited to see what might be delivered to them. However, if they had hoped for hearty Chilean cuisine, they would have been pretty disappointed.
Somewhat paradoxically, giving a starving man a hearty meal is one of the worst things that you can do. This was well documented at the end of the second world war, when prisoners were released from Nazi concentration camps, and when prisoners of war were released in Japan and the Phillipines.
Faced with people who were little more than skin and bone, many of the liberating soldiers handed out food from their own rations, which the starving prisoners gratefully accepted and quickly ate, but there were reports of people dying almost immediately after those first mouthfuls. Despite their liberation, thousands died, and it was soon realised that “refeeding syndrome” was responsible for a number of these fatalities.
When starved of nutrients, the body actually changes its chemistry in order to keep the most vital parts working for as long as possible. When you start eating again, that chemical shift becomes dangerous, leading to a shortage of vital phosphates and other minerals. This can cause hypophosphatemia, which can lead to respiratory and cardiac failure, seizures, coma and death.
The rescue team had called upon experts from NASA because they had studied the effect that isolation had upon people in order to help astronauts. Their advice, based on the lessons learned from the liberation of concentration camps, and the treatment of other patients with severe malnutrition, had allowed the rescuers to prepare a special diet that would gradually allow the men to readjust to normal food. NASA physician Dr J.D. Polk explained to a documentary team that there were other concerns as well.
“We worry about the lack of exposure to UV light, to UVA and B. UVA and UVB help kill bacteria and fungus and viruses. Without that, the men are probably more at risk for fungal infections, bacterial infections, etc. in the mine.”
Their first “meal”, if you could call it that, arrived in the form of 33 bottles, each containing a few ounces of glucose gel. Accompanying instructions told them not to drink it too quickly, but many ignored that and suffered painful stomach cramps as a result.
In the days that followed, two more drills reached the miners, allowing the rescuers to use one as a utility tube to carry electrical and fibre-optic lines to maintain a connection with the men, while the first became a dedicated supply line, dropping PVC tubes filled with bottles of glucose gel, clean drinking water, medicines and much more. Those tubes became known as “palomas”, the Chilean word for pigeons, because the process felt a lot like receiving things by messenger pigeon.
On the 23rd of August, they received something perhaps even more precious than food; the first letters from their families. Many included reassurances – everything is okay up here, don’t worry about us – but some contained surprises. Edison Peña’s girlfriend asked him to marry her. Jorge Galleguillos got a letter from a son he’d long been estranged from. And Carlos Mamani read that he was now a millionaire.
This was due to the intervention of Leonardo Farkas, a wealthy celebrity who had arrived at the camp to donate 5 million Chilean pesos to each of the miners. This was equivalent to about 10,000 US dollars each. Of course, with the men still underground, the issue of who handled that gift would cause friction amongst some of the families.
On the 24th of August, they received a call from President Sebastián Piñera. This was when they actually heard some devastating news. When Urzua asked the president when they were going to get out of “this hell”, he was told that it wouldn’t be in time for September the 18th, Chilean Independence Day, but that they hoped to get them out for Christmas.
The hope that they had felt when the drill first broke through was dashed; they still faced four months trapped underground in the shifting mountain.
This is where the men’s faith became vital. Dr Al Holland, NASA psychologist, said:
“Faith plays a key role in maintaining your motivation to survive. It’s the understanding of the people who are trying to rescue you that they are technically good, that they are working 24/7 on your behalf, faith in your family, that your family has not given up on you, faith in comrades that are with you, that they will keep encouraging you and you will keep encouraging them, and faith in yourself, and in your religion, and without those, they’d lose the ability as a team to continue to work towards their survival.”
The miners had kept faith this long that they would be found; and now they had to keep faith that they would be saved. It would simply take more time, and patience.
To deal with this wait, they set up new routines underground. They split the men into three work shifts, so that there would always be someone monitoring the paloma supply tube and the communications, and established individual roles to ensure that everyone’s needs would be met, and that the rescue team would continue to get the information they needed. Raul Bustos, Carlos Barrios and Franklin Lobos led these three teams.
Yonni Barrios became the team nurse, by dint of the fact that he had once given an injection to his mother, and was used to monitoring his wife’s blood pressure. Urine test strips sent down indicated that sixteen of the 33 were already suffering the early stages of kidney failure, and needed extra fresh water to drink, and they all needed additional vitamins and vaccinations to protect them from “latent virus reactivation” caused by the lack of sunlight.
When a video camera was sent down, so that the miners could show the rescue team exactly what they were living with, the shy Florencio Avalos became the cameraman, while outgoing Mario Sepulveda presented the tour. Although some of this video was broadcast on national TV, it was carefully edited. They showed the sections where the men expressed their faith in, and thanks to, the rescuers – but not the parts where they expressed their fears. It was also noted that five of the men didn’t appear on the video at all. One news report asserted that this was because those five were suffering from depression; others suggested that it was due to divisions within the group – that those five had been living apart from the others. However, due to the pact the miners made, the exact truth will never be known. Dario Segovia explained to his family,
“What happens in the mine, stays in the mine.”
Communication with their families would be vital to maintaining hope; astronauts on the International Space Station have video calls with their families every week, and NASA advisors recommended something similar for the miners. To begin with, each family recorded a short video message to be sent down; later they would be able to talk live, and throughout they wrote letters to be sent up and down the paloma tubes.
While some of the miners tried to present a positive face to their loved ones, others were honest about their struggles.
In a letter to his brother Pedro, Victor Segovia wrote:
“There’s no way I’m going to lie to you how things are down here. It’s very bad. This hell is killing me. I try to be strong but it’s difficult. Sometimes when I sleep, I dream I’m at a barbecue. When I wake up, I find myself a prisoner in this darkness.”
In his diary, he also wrote plainly about the change in mood since the drill broke through.
“Everyone’s spirits are very bad. Before help arrived there was peace, we prayed every day… Now that help has arrived, instead of being more united, all we do is fight and argue.”
In many ways, this would be the hardest part of their ordeal; with rescue simultaneously so close and yet so far away, and with little to do but wait, Segovia compared it to being an animal in captivity, “always depending on a human hand to feed it.”
Through the paloma, their conditions became more tolerable in some ways, and worse in others. The rescue team located portable cots which could fit into the tubes, so the men no longer had to sleep on bare rock. Victor Segovia received a new pen and notebook for his diary, which the miners agreed would be their official chronicle. Their clothes, long since drenched with sweat and filthy with the dirt of the mine, could be sent up for washing, and new ones sent back down.
And they started receiving newspapers, complete with the accounts of their own situation. Their own letters made their way to the papers, and thus back down to their colleagues. Friction ensued, since the thoughts they expressed to their families were not always those they expressed to their colleagues. Arguments continued, with some even threatening violence towards each other.
The paloma tubes could not reduce the heat and humidity that they suffered, and the inevitable fraying of nerves that resulted, and they could not bring sunshine into the darkness. Their fragile link to the surface provided only little comforts whilst exposing them to the global media circus which now spun around them. They read about how important their story had become, not just to Chile but to the whole world, and felt the pressure of suddenly becoming symbols of a courage and resilience they didn’t necessarily feel.
They also had to deal with private parts of their lives becoming exposed to scrutiny, with the complexities of their love lives and their families frequently in the spotlight. Some parts of the media even took to speculating about the men’s sexual activities, because how could 33 men possibly abstain for so long? It was reported that the rescue team considered sending down sex dolls, but that this was abandoned when they couldn’t source 33 – it was either one each, or none at all, because anything else would be unsanitary and risk causing more fights. How the miners actually felt about this situation is not reported – some things, they agreed, were their business, and their business alone.
Back on the surface, industry experts debated over the best way to rescue the miners.
Now that they knew precisely where the miners were, the rescuers were able to bring in one of the biggest drill rigs in the country, a Strata 950 raise borer, which would be capable of drilling a shaft wide enough to bring the men out. The problem was that it could only drill straight down, and it would be slow – this led to the original December estimate for rescue.
Another option was put forward, which would become Plan B – to expand one of the three shafts that already reached the miners.
In Pennsylvania, Brandon Fisher from Center Rock Inc. had been watching the news from Chile. Their drilling company had been involved in the Quecreek mine rescue in 2002, and they were keen to offer their expertise and equipment.
Fisher later said,
“When we initially saw that they were planning on taking as long as Christmas, we felt that we needed to get involved and at least reach out and let people know from Chile that we have technology that could possibly help.”
When their offer was accepted, both equipment and experts from America were quickly en route to Copiapo, with UPS shipping a clustered drill weighing 26,000 pounds or over 11.5 thousand kgs for free.
There was also a Plan C; another new shaft, to be drilled using a massive rig more often used to drill for oil. This rig would take a long time to set up, but once in place would drill faster than the Strata borer used by Plan A. 37 trucks were needed to bring the rig in.
Once again, it was a matter of time; one of these rescue plans had to eventually succeed. The men below relied on their new routine to keep sane; taking turns to unload supplies from the paloma tubes, writing and speaking to their families, trying to remain patient. They were sent bibles, prayer books, and novels to read, and MP3 players filled with music to listen to. Some even received glossy car magazines and brochures, as they planned how to spend the five million pesos they were promised, and, since they couldn’t all drive, the study materials for the written test they’d have to take once out.
A fibre optic connection allowed the miners to watch live as Chile played Ukraine in an international soccer game; former player Franklin Lobos even delivered commentary from the mine for the television cameras. For a while, the same connection delivered daytime TV, but when they started to neglect important duties in favour of watching “Good Morning Everyone” it was restricted.
Most importantly, as they recovered their strength they started to receive proper, recognisable meals. The rescuers realised that their charges were no longer in danger of malnutrition when, one day, a pastry was actually sent back up to the surface with the message,
“This isn’t very good. Do you have anything else?”
The drilling wasn’t straightforward for any of the teams. The Plan B drillers found that their drill bits were wearing out faster than expected; they had to change them every twelve hours. At a depth of 262m (860 feet) the drill bit suddenly shattered, and a large chunk got stuck in the hole. They wouldn’t be able to carry on unless they could get it out.
Then, the Plan A drillers encountered a problem with their hydraulics. With Plan C not yet set up, silence fell inside the mine – and the men fell into despair. It was up to those on the surface to reassure them. Carmen Berrios wrote to her husband Luis Urzua;
“…if you don’t hear the machines drilling, it’s not because they’ve left. Just have faith and don’t surrender to desperation. I write this because I want you to understand that a single objective motivates all the people involved in the rescue: getting you out of there.”
In due course, these issues were resolved, with the Plan B team using a “spider” – a kind of metal claw which could be lowered around the broken drill bit – to pull out the obstruction, so that the drilling could continue. The fact that this was achieved shortly after a statue of the Virgin Mary, blessed by the Pope and given to Chile for its bicentennial, was brought to Camp Esperanza was seen as significant by many.
On the 14th of September, Ariel Ticona’s wife gave birth to their third child, a daughter. He had promised to be there, but instead had to watch a video, heavily edited because psychologists on the rescue team decided it wasn’t appropriate to send footage of the caesarian section surgery. Ticona later said,
“I don’t know what I felt. If it was emotion, or happiness, or what.”
The little girl was named Esperanza, just like the camp up above.
While the drilling continued, the Chilean navy built the capsule that would be used in the rescue. NASA specialists gave them detailed specifications for the Escape Vehicle or EV, but the design was up to the Chileans. Just 54 cm or 21.25 inches in diameter, it would hold only one man at a time. It was built with a sturdy roof to protect the occupant from any debris falling in the shaft, and wheels on its sides so that it wouldn’t bump around against the walls. It carried an oxygen supply for the journey, and it was painted with the colours of the Chilean flag and the name “Fénix”.
On September 17th, the day before the Independence Day celebrations, Plan B completed its second stage, widening the shaft to 17 inches. Only one more pass would be needed to widen it further to 28 inches. Victor Segovia wrote, “This is happening really fast and it’s making us very happy.”
A small feast was sent down to the men, which they enjoyed with a cola drink instead of the traditional wine because, aside from anything else, the mine was still officially a work site where alcohol was prohibited. As cameras, and therefore all of Chile, watched, they raised a flag, and sang the national anthem.
Once Plan B entered its third stage, the miners had a lot more work to do. In order to speed up the process, the crushed rock that the drill ate through would now be allowed to fall down into the mine. The men would have to use a front loader machine to remove it from the workshop area, and dump it out elsewhere.
They also had to set an explosive blast at the bottom of the Plan B shaft. There wasn’t enough room for the Fénix capsule to actually fit into the mine unless they removed part of the wall, so they had to use jackhammers to make holes into which the explosives would be set.
At 8:02 on the morning of October 9th, the Plan B drill broke through once again. The shaft was now wide enough for rescue; as Golborne would later point out, it had taken 33 days of drilling to reach the 33 men.
Driller Greg Hall told documentary makers,
“This is the hardest job I’ve ever been on in my life. Technically and emotionally. And it fought us the whole way. At the very end you probably saw the pipe jamming, the roof bolts were catching in the teeth, and there’s a, ‘oh great, we’re not gonna be able to make it.’ But we made it.”
With their job done, the American drilling team packed up and left Camp Esperanza, without waiting to see the men below released.
Underground, the men set off the last blast in the San Jose mine, clearing the way for the escape capsule. They packed up the belongings they had down there, and sent them up in the paloma tubes. Some left behind memorials; others scribbled graffiti on mine property. Others, like Raul Bustos, carefully removed every last sign they were there. Bustos would later say,
“I didn’t want anyone else to see it, to come and say later, ‘See, look, this is where Raul Bustos slept.’ It was all very private, and it was mine.”
At 11:17 on the evening of October the 12th, the Fénix capsule began its descent into the mine, carrying rescuer Manuel González. His mission was to make sure everything was working, and prepare the men below for the long trip back up. He arrived at 11:30, to be embraced by Yonni Barrios.
“There’s a shitload of people up there waiting for you guys!”
Florencio Avalos had been chosen as the first to go up; following the principles of submarine rescues, he had been selected as the strongest and most able-bodied, and thus best able to deal with any complications that might arise. González ran through a checklist, took Avalos’ blood pressure and pulse, strapped him into the Fénix and connected monitors to his finger and harness. Although it was nighttime, Avalos was wearing Oakley branded sunglasses; after so long underground, he would need protection from the lights when he got to the surface. The company had donated a pair for each of the miners.
“We’ll see each other up on top,” Avalos said before the door to the capsule closed. As it began to rise, he shouted out, “It feels good! It feels good in here!”
At the top, there were indeed a lot of people waiting. The president of Chile, his wife, and Minister Golborne were standing nearby, alongside other members of the rescue team, watched by hundreds of reporters from all around the world. More importantly, when Florencio Avalos finally stepped out of the Fénix capsule, his wife and son were there for an emotional reunion. It was ten minutes past midnight on the 13th of October, and he had spent 69 days in the mine. Across the country, sirens sounded in many cities in celebration.
While Avalos was led away for a medical check-up, another rescue worker strapped into the capsule and made the descent. There was still a lot of work to do.
At quarter to one, the second rescuer reached the bottom, and it was Mario Sepulveda’s turn to ascend. Before he even reached the top, he could be heard yelling to his wife Elvira. When he stepped out, an hour after Avalos, he embraced the president, punched the air and handed out souvenir rocks to rescuers, leading the crowds in a chant of “Chi-Chi-Chi! Le-Le-Le!”
A third rescuer went down, and at 2:07am Juan Illanes became the third miner to step out. He told rescuers that the trip was, “Like a cruise!”
Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani followed, at 3:09, saying “Thank you to everyone.”
Next to be rescued was Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest miner at just 19 years old. While the capsule went back down, the first four men were airlifted by helicopter to Copiapo hospital.
Osman Araya and Jose Ojeda came up next, Ojeda waving a Chilean flag as he stepped out. Claudio Yanez arrived just after seven, followed by Mario Gomez at eight. The oldest of the 33, Gomez fell to his knees in prayer and said, “I have come back to life.”
With growing confidence in the capsule, the rescue process got smoother and quicker. Alex Vega reached the surface shortly before nine, and Jorge Galleguillos just after half past.
Edison Pena, Carlos Barrios, Victor Zamora and Victor Segovia were all out by noon.
Through the afternoon, the rescue continued with Daniel Herrera and Omar Reygadas. A minor issue with the door closing mechanism had to be fixed before Esteban Rojas became the 18th man to be rescued, followed by his cousin Pablo, then Dario Segovia.
Yonni Barrios arrived at half past four; media speculation over his love life continued with some confusion over whether the lady waiting for him was wife Marta or girlfriend Susana – it was Susana.
Samuel Avalos, Carlos Bugueno, and preacher Jose Henriquez followed. Renan Avalos, the 25th to be rescued, ascended in less than ten minutes, and said the journey was “really beautiful.”
Claudio Acuna was 26th out, followed by Franklin Lobos, who was given a signed football and immediately started kicking it about. Richard Villaroel was the last to be rescued in daylight; night fell as Juan Aguilar ascended. Raul Bustos, Pedro Cortez, and Ariel Ticona followed; the final miner, shift supervisor Luis Urzua, reached the surface at 9:56pm on the 13th. He told President Pinera,
“I hand the shift over to you and hope this never happens again. I am proud to be Chilean.”
Although “Los 33” were all out, that didn’t mean that the rescue was over. In total six rescuers had gone down into the mine to manage the rescue; in the depths, they unfurled a poster with the words “Mission Accomplished: Chile” on it. They would now take turns to ride back up to safety. Manuel Gonzalez, the first rescuer to go down, would be the last out. Before getting into the Fénix, he spoke to the cameras, saying he had been away from his family for a week, “But it was worth it because we finally got this done.” He stepped out from the shaft just after half past midnight on the 14th of October.
President Pinera then ceremoniously closed the San Jose mine.
Upon reaching the surface, each man had been taken away for initial medical checks, before being transferred to a field hospital and then to the hospital in Copiapo, where two floors had been set aside for them, and the lights had been dimmed for their comfort.
Despite their long ordeal, the miners were reported to be in good shape; although one was recovering from pneumonia, and three required dental surgery, the others could expect to go home very soon. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t actually be the end of their ordeal.
When Juan Illanes and six of the other miners appeared at their first press conference on the 16th October, he made a point of pleading for their privacy to be respected, saying, “Leave us enough room so that we can learn how to deal with you all.”
With only Victor Zamora still in hospital, due to the condition of his teeth, reporters had been showing up at the miners’ homes. Sepulveda had been escorted from the hospital with his head covered by a blanket in order to avoid the media.
Illanes asked the media not to try to “destroy the image” of the miners as a group; although the picture that had been given was, as a whole, one of unity and loyalty, reports of the divisions between them had started to come out. He also asked reporters to dial back on the mean-spirited stories that had focused on individuals, like Yonni Barrios, whose love life had become a favourite highlight of the media. “Please consider his emotional state of mind,” Illanes said.
Victor Segovia later recalled finding reporters not only surrounding his home, but inside talking to his relatives. While all he wanted was to sit quietly in his backyard and have a beer, instead he had relatives pleading with him to talk to the reporters so that they would leave. Amidst this chaos, his elderly father cried when he set eyes on him.
“Never, never had I seen him cry before. He was always a hard man.”
Omar Reygadas confronted reporters after a special Sunday Mass the weekend after their rescue. As he left the service, the media mob jostled so hard for position that his 2 year old great-granddaughter was pushed, and began to cry.
“I’ve had nightmares these days, but the worst nightmare is all of you,” he said.
Speaking from their home in a run down slum of Copiapo, Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani’s wife Veronica Quispe said,
“We’re poor, look at the place we live. You live off our stories, so why can’t we make money from this opportunity to feed our children?”
Despite their pact of silence, some of them were entertaining the reporters – at a price. Reports said that they were charging anywhere from 40 USD to 25,000 for an interview. A Japanese reporter is said to have complained that their interviewee “charged us fifty dollars but it felt like he was holding something back.”
A story in tabloid newspaper La Segunda tallied up the cost of all the gifts that the men had received; more than 19 million pesos, or 38,000 USD, each, in “vacations, clothing and donations.” As well as the Oakley branded sunglasses worn during their rescue, they had been sent brand new iPods by Apple, and top of the line Kawasaki motorcycles. They were invited on trips to Disney World, holidays in the Greek islands, and a Manchester United football game at Old Trafford. Edison Pena, whose love for Elvis Presley’s music had been noted by the press, was invited to Graceland.
“After that story in La Segunda, people started to think we were getting rich. They looked at us differently.”
Franklin Lobos said,
“We are not heroes, like people say. We’re just victims. We’re not movie stars, or Hollywood stars.”
Nevertheless, for a while, that is how they were treated. They were constantly asked what they would do now, since they didn’t need to work in the mine any more, and the international trips gave them something of a culture shock.
Edison Pena said,
“It shocked me to see people walking around, living normally. It shocked me because I would say, ‘Hey, where I come from isn’t like that. I come from a place where we were fighting desperately to live.’… It threw me off. It threw a lot of us off.”
Pedro Cortez said,
“To be treated like a rock star – that was stressful. We got to Disney World and people wanted to touch us. As if we were God, almost.”
They struggled to live with the memories of their ordeal. Carlos Bugueño reported to a psychologist, “My girlfriend says I wake up yelling in the middle of the night.” Pedro Cortez similarly said, “At night, all the memories come back”, but it wasn’t only the darkness that tormented them. Loud noises, like a motorbike backfiring, brought them back to the moment of the collapse, and even something as simple as a closed door could trigger an emotional response.
The men coped – or didn’t – by varying degrees.
Some, like Florencio Avalos, avoided the spotlight, turning down invitations to travel abroad and even refusing to attend ceremonies close to home. He told author Hector Tobar, “Those things don’t interest me.” Instead, he took an above-ground job with a mining company, working to support his wife and sons.
By contrast, Edison Peña felt obliged to go on every trip offered.
“You start to become a puppet… We’;re going here, we’re going there… it was rough. Pack your luggage, stand in line. Do this, do that. I think, looking at it honestly – it’s like we lost our lives.”
He turned to alcohol, and his excessive drinking and mental struggle led to him spending a second Independence Day in confinement, this time at a psychiatric clinic in Santiago.
With the money given to them by Farkas public knowledge, and extensive news reports of other expensive gifts, some were besieged by relatives, friends and acquaintances in need of a “loan” – most of which, of course, would never be repaid. The money didn’t last long under those circumstances. Victor Segovia handed out around 6 million pesos, or about 12,000 USD, before realising that people were simply taking advantage of him.
A year after their rescue, an article in the New York Times reported that most of the miners were unemployed, and many were poorer even than before.
Nine of them were receiving sick-leave pay for prolonged post-traumatic stress. Their psychiatrist, Rodrigo Gillibrand, said, “This is very similar to how Vietnam veterans suffered.”
Despite their trauma, many wanted to go back to the mines. However, it would be difficult. José Ojeda reportedly tried to go back, and suffered a panic attack when he was left alone.
“I started to sweat a lot, a cold sweat. I don’t even remember how they took me out; I blacked out.”
A similar article in The Guardian reported that several were making ends meet by selling goods on the street. In the middle of their interview with Samuel Avalos, he stopped to ask them if they would buy his motorbike.
“Or I have a flag signed by all 33 miners. How much is that worth?”
Five years after the disaster, a major Hollywood film starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche was released. The miners hoped that their share of the ticket sales would improve their financial situations, but ten years on the story was still not much different.
Jose Ojeda was then reported to be living on a government pension of about $320 a month, not enough to pay the medical bills for his advanced diabetes.
Jimmy Sanchez, who had been the youngest of the 33, also lived on a government pension, with his wife and two children, in a house occupied by twenty people in total. Although he had sought work in the interim, he had struggled.
“…When they figured out who I was, the doors were closed to me. It wasn’t my fault I was trapped.”
Mario Sepulveda fared better than most; he turned his fame into a career as a motivational speaker, and won a survival reality TV show, using the winnings to build a centre for children with autism.
Even so, he expressed bitterness over their treatment after the rescue, saying,
“People saw the pictures of the rescue and they thought our hell was over. In fact it was just beginning.”
The mine itself remained closed, and President Pinera promised a major overhaul of the mining regulatory agency. Just over a week after the end of the rescue, a preliminary report by the Commission on Work Safety was delivered, with 30 proposals for improvements.
Despite a congressional investigative report stating in 2011 that the mine owners “could have avoided” the collapse, the San Esteban Mining Company was eventually deemed not to be liable. Three years after the accident, the Atacama regional public prosecutor stated that:
“There was not enough evidence to determine the cause of the accident or to charge the mine owners, Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny, or officials of the government mining agency in charge of enforcing safety standards, with criminal responsibility in the collapse.”
The Chilean government was ordered to pay $110,000 to each miner, but appealed on the basis that 14 of the men had lifetime pensions from various sources. The suit was still pending as of the last reports I found in 2020.
Extended lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have given many people a new appreciation for the difficulties that isolation can cause. Still, it’s nothing compared to spending two months in the dark, fearing for your life at every moment, and then emerging into an international spotlight.
When you come down to it, the only ones who can ever truly understand the impact of the San Jose mine collapse are those who endured it – the 33.