With the market price of gold soaring internationally, no-one in the world is paying a higher price for the commodity than the 33 Chilean miners trapped in a small shelter half a mile underground with little hope of escape before Christmas 2010.
When the San Jose gold and copper mine in Copiapa, northern Chile, collapsed around them in August, a frantic search to detect signs of life began. Over the ensuing days, their devastated families began to fear the miners were dead, sealed in an airless underground tomb, out of reach and finally beyond rescue.
After more than two weeks the rescuers located the men, however, and the national television and press in Chile reported with astonishment that all 33 were alive and uninjured. Sebastian Pinera, Chile’s President read out the short, hastily-written note which the miners had sent to the surface: “The 33 of us in the shelter are well.”
The necessary solidarity between miners had served the men well over those first 17 days when they were buried alive and lost to the world. Miners know that every shift underground represents danger and each must look out for others if the shift is to end well. When disaster struck in the small gold and copper mine at Copiapa, the habitual discipline and solidarity among the miners meant they were able to devise a plan of rations and stick to it. Eking out sparse rations, each man drank a little milk and ate a mouthful of tuna and half a biscuit every two days.
When a camera was eventually lowered into the shelter, the astonishing film that was relayed to the surface showed the miners were fit, active and well organised. They gave ‘victory’ signs to the camera and sang their national anthem together. They showed Chile and the world outside that they’ve organised a small area where, as one of them explained: “we entertain ourselves. We play cards. We meet here every day. We plan, we have assemblies here every day so that all the decisions we make are based on the thoughts of all 33.”
That sense of democratic discussion and shared decision-making should stand them in good stead as they settle in to their uncomfortable makeshift home for the long rescue effort.
There are various dangers ahead for the men, some psychological and emotional, some physical. Firstly, they’ll be terribly frustrated by their lengthy entrapment. It doesn’t help that they’re fully aware that the mine company, Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, had failed to install an escape ladder that would have led them quickly to the surface. San Esteban knew that in the event of a collapse, there was no emergency way out. Chile’s Minister for Mining, Laurence Goldborne, says the men would have escaped in 48 hours had the ladder been available. The miners are likely to experience anger at the company’s negligence. There’ll be fear too. The rescue effort is moving so slowly precisely because the mine is unstable and there are fears about drills causing further collapse. That must be a terrifying thought even for hardy, experienced miners. There will also be difficult emotions around missing family and friends.
In such confined quarters, with no daylight and temperatures above 29°C, there’s also the possibility of arguments and fights. Luckily, there are older men as well as young ones in the shelter; the more experienced miners may help to stabilise the younger men.
Hygiene will be a problem for the trapped men. They’re able to access water, wash, and clean their teeth and clothes. They’ll need to be very careful about cleanliness and the risk of infection. For simple hygiene reasons, the Chilean authorities instructed the men to build a toilet as soon as they made contact. The miners’ pulse, blood pressure and temperature will be monitored constantly and medication given where necessary. Chile’s Health Minister, Jaime Manalich, says there are also plans to send them anti-depressants to keep them as cheerful as possible during the long, dangerous rescue operation.
NASA experts are being drafted in to advise on keeping the men fit until rescue – conditions in the mine are said to resemble the cramped quarters of astronauts spending long spells on the International Space Station.
Supplies will be lowered through a tube. The miners will receive high-protein food concentrates and special hydration gels. Although the miners have lost significant amounts of weight, they must not gain too much of it back. The rescue borehole will be only 26″ in diameter and each man knows he must ensure he can pass through it.
To help keep morale up, the miners also have communication technology to contact their families along with games and videos – notably film of football heroes Maradona and Pele.
Across the internet, people have asked whether there is a fund to help the miners’ families. At time of writing, there isn’t. Leonardo Farkas, however is a very wealthy Chilean entrepreneur, along the lines of Britain’s Richard Branson. He has investments in mining and is reported to have donated several thousand dollars to each miner’s family to help them while their husbands and fathers are trapped underground. He has also offered them jobs outside mining once they return to the surface. There has also been talk of La Tercera, a Chilean daily paper, starting a fund to raise money for the families.
One source of funding for the miners should of course be compensation from the thoroughly negligent Compania Minera San Esteban Primera. Sixteen miners had already died in accidents at the San Jose mine before the recent collapse. Since San Esteban ignored an order to install the escape ladder, the miners should be able to expect huge compensation for their ordeal. That compensation may not be forthcoming though. Relatives of the trapped miners have already launched a lawsuit against San Esteban and the mine company has responded by saying it may simply file for bankruptcy. In that case executives say, the company may not even pay the men’s salaries when they finally emerge from the collapsed mine.