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Al Jazeera Correspondent
The 33: Meeting the miners
In the aftermath of their rescue some of the 33 Chilean miners became media sensations, but what happened to the others?
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2011 08:47
Much of the media attention focused on just a handful of the 33 miners [GALLO/GETTY]

By producer Dai Richards

Many of the articles and broadcasts about the Chilean miners trapped hundreds of metres underground for two months in 2010, focused on just a handful of 'the 33'; those whose personalities made them stand out from the rest, like the boisterous Mario Sepulveda, the dancing and singing Eduardo Pena, the lay preacher Jose Henrique and the authoritative shift boss Luis Urzua.

But when Al Jazeera Correspondent went to Copiapo to film Chilean Miners: Still Trapped? we chose to talk to a group more typical of 'the 33'.

Like most of the men, those we interviewed have lived all their lives in Chile's Atacama Desert, the world's prime region for copper. Now they all live in or near Copiapo, the desert town built on copper mining. They were all born to a life in the mines, with too little education or too few resources to develop an alternative career. 

Those we spoke to generally managed to stay mentally strong during their 70-day ordeal, which they put down to their Christian faith and the support they received from each other and their family and friends.

But since their rescue, their lives have not been the same. After the excitement of celebrity, they have found it difficult to readjust to their former lives. Still haunted by their ordeal and reluctant to return to mining, they are finding it difficult to build a new life for themselves. 

Here they reflect on their experiences.

 
Fifty-six-year-old Omar Reygadas says he was "born and raised in mining". He explains how the miners kept their morale high. "A very important part was the unity, keeping ourselves together, cooperation with each other, talking a lot to keep our minds occupied." Click here to read his story.
Mario Gomez is the oldest of the 33 miners. He explains how he would like to improve safety standards in Chile's mines. "This would be my wish; one day [to] see that everything dealing with mining here would function according to the law and with maximum security. I think that this way we could avoid many accidents. Many." Click here to read his story.
Jorge Galleguillos started going to his father's mine when he was just six years old. He says: "At some point I was given a small shovel and some other equipment miners used. I played at mining, and became enthusiastic. It set me on the path to becoming a miner myself. Anyway, there was little else for me to do." Click here to read his story.

Claudio Acuña had a month-long contract at San Jose. On his first day there, he realised that the mine was dangerous. "There were tunnels everywhere, but practically no escape shafts. I told my wife about the conditions and she said I should resign. I said I would only be there for a month. The cave-in happened on my fifth day." Click here to read his story.

Omar Reygadas, 56
Omar Reygadas was the 17th man to be rescued from the mine [EPA]

Omar Reygadas says he was "born and raised in mining". All his family have worked in the gold and copper mines of the Atacama Desert, mostly as 'piquineros' - prospector miners working in very small mines, often ones they have found and excavated themselves. 

As a small child, he played at his father's mine during school breaks. Not allowed inside, he would collect minerals, separate them and pile them up near the entrance. 

Omar talked of the tough conditions in which piquineros work, and how it used to be even tougher. His father worked in a mine where the water came up to his waist, which led him to have severe pain in his leg in later life.

Omar's older sister has been a piquinera for many years and at 67 is still working in a small gold mine she owns with her husband.

There are hundreds of such piquinero mines in Chile's Atacama Desert.

Omar did not always work in the mines. In the early 1990s he opened an auto-repair shop with a friend, but it did not work out, so he returned to mining in 1994. But he explains that he could not get work in the large state or international mines because "they require that you have a high school diploma and I don't have it. I only studied to 8th grade. Some won't hire after 36 years old. I was 39 then. Sometimes you can get a job if you have a good contact in the company, but I did not".

In 2001 he became a reluctant union spokesman in the mine where he was working: "My colleagues said I'd be a good union representative for the mine. I said no many times because it wasn't in me to be one. I saw the union as political and I don't like politics, but my colleagues convinced me.

"I think I was a tough union member, because what is legal is legal and what isn't isn't. I stood up for the rights of the workers. I was never aggressive, I stayed calm, but I insisted on legal rights and argued on the true facts. The bosses didn't like it; they saw me as a risk. Eventually, they made life difficult for me and forced me out of my job.

"San Jose [the mine where the 33 were trapped] paid well and did not ask your education record. They offered me a salary which was high because it included an element for the risk of working there. Driving a scoop truck, as I did, was especially well paid. They offered me 800.000 pesos ($1,750) a month and I jumped at it. It was much more than I had been earning.

"I knew it was risky place. The main danger was from falling rocks. Jobs were not always well done. If you don't use the right explosives or don't properly fortify the areas where you are working, the mountain becomes weak, so accidents that happened at San Jose mine were due to rocks falling some of them quite big rocks.

"One who died, Pedro Gonzalez, was my counterpart on the other shift, so I handed the truck over to him. A rock fell on him when he was loading. He was killed instantly."

Pedro Gonzales died on March 4, 2004. He was 39 years old.

Trapped

Omar recalled the moods he experienced in the emergency shelter.

"Frustrated, depressed, the feeling of impotence ... but I was not really frightened. Even when we heard the drill pass by us, I thought, well, they will try again, because I've worked in drilling, so you try over and over until you achieve what you set out to achieve.  

"A very important part was the unity, keeping ourselves together, cooperation with each other, talking a lot to keep our minds occupied. This unity helped our mental strength and the older ones amongst us certainly tried not to show our negative thoughts, we tried to keep positive."

Omar became a grandfather - for the 17th time - while he was trapped underground.

Not long before the men were finally freed, Al Jazeera sent a camera down to them. Omar was one who recorded a message for his family. In it, he showed he had not lost his sense of humour: 

Omar: Well, I have 17 grandchildren, so I'd rather be rescued around January.

Omar junior: Why?

Omar: So I don't have to buy Christmas presents. And if it's after March, even better, as I won't have to help buy any school uniforms.
 
Omar Reygadas was the 17th man to be freed from San Jose mine in Chile. He emerged from the capsule at 13:39 on October 13.

Aftermath

Relatives of Omar Reygadas watch the TV broadcast of his rescue on October 13, 2010 [EPA]

He was not immune to the physical and psychological effects of his ordeal.

On exiting the mine, Omar was diagnosed with diabetes, which he and his doctors attribute in part to the stress. 

"I have had to change my diet, reduce my sugar intake. I get some injections to stabilise my sugar levels in my blood.

"At first I couldn't sleep, I would lie awake until 5am. They gave me pills but the pills made me like a zombie during the day. I stopped taking them. Now I manage to get to sleep around 2am.

"I experienced so much stress that my hair was falling out. I could not be on my own for long. When I was alone, I could not help thinking about things I didn't want to think about. This was difficult because everyone at home goes out to work and I stay here on my own.

"And my mind wanders. Even my wife has said that she is talking to me and I looked as though I was somewhere else ... not listening to her. My head is somewhere else.

"Now I feel a lot better physically and mentally. My family has been a great help. Without them, and all my grandchildren, I would not have recovered as much as I have."

'The 33' received some great gifts. Each was given a brand new Kawasaki motorbike but most of the benefits have been in the form of free trips abroad. All they have received has enabled them to buy some new things, to pay off debts, to make improvements to their homes. Some have bought new cars. Many have saved some to invest in their future. A Hollywood movie should bring the men some income from royalties, and they could win substantial compensation from law suits stemming from the cave-in at San Jose mine.

But they still need to work.

Omar spoke of how some local people believe their ordeal has made them wealthy for life. "I ran into an old work colleague in the supermarket. He said to me: 'I suppose you won't speak to us, now that you are rich!'  

"So I replied: 'Rich? Tell me where I got these riches. Do you think we found treasure down the mine? Our foreign trips haven't brought us money; they give us the tickets and put us in beautiful places but not money. In fact we have to provide our spending money - for souvenirs, presents and the like. If I had money I wouldn't still be living here.'"

Omar has given some motivational talks to students in the US and Chile. He would like to work in mining safety, but lacks the engineering qualifications required to become a safety inspector. Still, his aim is to find a role through which he could contribute to the safety of his former colleagues. He believes there is still much to be done to improve safety in Chile's copper mines.

"Nothing much has changed yet. Maybe they are working on it, drafting and discussing new regulations, but so far it's mostly talk, not yet put into practice," he says.

"I think my experience in mines gives me a knowledge of safety just as valuable as a student who has studied but has no practical experience. I would like to put my knowledge to good use."

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Mario Gomez, 63
Mario Gomez, left, was the oldest of the 33 miners trapped in the San Jose mine [EPA]

At 63, Mario Gomez is the oldest of the 33 miners. 

The father of four daughters, his family - and in particular his wife Liliana - was at the forefront of those who pressed the government to launch a full-scale rescue effort, and kept up the pressure to ensure the rescue operation kept going at full speed. 

Mario started working in mining when he was 14 years old. He worked with his father, who had been a miner all his life. He first worked at the San Jose mine in 1964, when he was 18 years old. He says its working methods were "very rudimentary" then. He left in 1968 and did not return until 1991.

At work one day in 1990, Mario picked up a discarded cigarette packet. "I opened it and found some old fuses for dynamite. This was in the middle of the day and it was very hot. We all have static electricity, some more than others. The sweat and static on my hands caused the fuses to explode."

That was how Mario lost three fingers.

Over the years, he has breathed in so much dust and debris that he now has the miner's lung disease silicosis. He uses a bronchial dilator to help maximise the capacity of his lungs. 

He tried to make a living outside the mines. He set himself up as a taxi driver, but never managed to make enough money to live off, so returned to the mines.

When he returned to work at San Jose, he found the equipment much better than when he had left more than 20 years before. "The employer handed out the helmet, safety boots, gloves, the mask, even glasses just in case there are any particles in the air .... This was demanded from them by new laws. Otherwise the mine would not have been allowed to operate. Even so, not all mines kept to these rules."

But with new owners, Mario recalls how safety standards in San Jose slipped. "They always wanted to excavate too quickly. Safety was never a high priority for them. Productivity was king. The greatest dangers were in the mine's very structure. They just didn't shore things up well enough."

More than once, Mario witnessed and helped rescue workers severely injured by rock falls. "The most recent accident before the cave-in which trapped us was in June 2010. It happened around 2am. I was driving into the mine to load the truck with minerals when a pick-up truck was coming the other way. They asked me to accompany them because there had been an accident. A young man, Gino Cortez, had been injured by a rock fall.

"When we got to him, I saw that his leg had been severed right off. Gino was conscious throughout. He was a very strong, brave man. He was lucid; the only thing he asked me was not to look at his leg, and not to look at him with pity. And we didn't, we only looked [at] the magnitude of the accident."

In the weeks and days after Gino's accident and before the cave-in, Mario was one of those pressing for the mine's managers to stop taking minerals from the pillars of rock left in place as structural supports, and to shore up the area where a large crack had appeared - which later triggered the cave-in. The worker's union, the CUT, was also calling for a new inspection of the mine to check its structural safety.  

Trapped

Mario's wife Liliana, left, says her husband's mental strength set an example to the others [EPA]

As the most experienced of the 33 miners, Mario saw it as his responsibility to stay strong and give encouragement to the others.

"As one of the oldest and most experienced I felt it was my duty to keep up our morale. Because in these cases of being trapped, you can have mental disorder, people lose hope, panic and this sometimes is dangerous. So I always tried to keep their hopes up. 

"On the first day, when we were gathered, I said to my colleagues: 'Listen, right now we have 33 families above, 33 wives and behind the wife comes the family, and there are a lot of people above. There are already neighbours, some people who came out of curiosity, so I'm sure that above it is crowded with people. Besides that,' I told them, 'I'm sure it's full of journalists. In this moment we're at the centre of the world's attention. The whole world must be worried with what's happening to us. They will be trying to rescue us. They will make a big effort and they will find us.'"

When the first probe drill missed its target and failed to find the trapped men, Mario exhorted his comrades not to lose faith: "I would say: 'Don't worry. This first drill is the beginning. Another will come. Two more will come. It may take some days. They have to bring in the drilling rigs, which are cumbersome.' But three days later one of those already operating found us."

His wife, Liliana, remembers how several of the miners later told her: "Thanks to your husband I was able to stay strong."

"By his mental strength, he set them an example," she says.

All the while, Mario perhaps suffered more than most in the oppressive conditions 700 metres below the surface. 

"The deeper into the earth you get, the hotter it gets," he says. "The temperature can rise above 35 degrees centigrade, normally. Humidity inside the mines is usually above 90 per cent."

His damaged lungs were severely tested.

"There was very little air, very little oxygen. Some ventilation shafts had been blocked and the air didn't circulate. Later, as the mountain kept shifting, some shafts opened up again and the air circulation improved.  But during all those days, there was always very little air.

"Luckily, we found two large oxygen cylinders in a cavern. I'd go there and take the oxygen for 15 minutes, until the feeling of suffocation passed. But even with this, I worried that if we were not found soon, I would find breathing too hard."

Mario was the ninth of the 33 to be rescued. He stepped into the light at 07:59 on October 13.

Aftermath

Mario Gomez greets people as he arrives home after being discharged from hospital [EPA]

On the four occasions we met him for this film, Mario was always welcoming, thoughtful and immaculately dressed. He is one who had few difficulties coping with being in the media spotlight. 

"It was never a problem for me being stopped by a journalist who wants to ask questions. If I can answer him, I will. This never bothered me. Some others yes, it bothers them. But I say: 'We shouldn't be bothered. Today this is who we are. Destiny dealt us this hand.'"

The new status which the ordeal has conferred on him has been both good and bad. "People see us differently. They treat us with more respect. They greet us in the street. They ask us many things, but always in good heart.

"Now, there are other people that don't look at us like that. They look at us with a certain degree of envy. I don't know why. I think that if we're here today, in this place, it's due to ... I won't say, thanks to the accident ... it's due to things of life. It's like a common person bought a lottery ticket and got the biggest prize. I think it's like something similar happened to us."

Mario is pondering his future. He rules out any arduous job in the mines - he simply doesn't have the strength for it any more.

"The 70 days in the shelter increased my lung problem because we took in a lot of dirt. Even if wanted to keep working as I used to work in the mines - loading up a car or a bucket with a shovel, climbing up stairs - I could no longer do it."

Mario, like Omar, would nevertheless like to make use of all he has learnt during his 50 years in the mines. "After so many years in a job, you accumulate so much experience that you sometimes know more than an engineer that just graduated from university. You're more aware of things. An engineer may work for 10 years in a mine, but he'll never see what a miner with 50 years' experience sees.

"I've always wanted to give talks about safety and going to the mines, where there are big companies which I know are reluctant to spend money and make miners work in bad conditions. This would be my wish; one day [to] see that everything dealing with mining here would function according to the law and with maximum security. I think that this way we could avoid many accidents. Many."

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Jorge Galleguillos, 56
Jorge Galleguillos attends mass at the site of the accident [EPA]

Jorge Galleguillos' father was a lone Piquinero. He started going to his dad's mine when he was just six years old.

"I went just to keep him company. The mine was close to home and my dad worked on his own in the mine. I was not allowed into the mine then, but I was there just in case he had an accident. I was trained to run home to tell my mum or another adult, if anything went wrong."

He remembers that his mother would buy tea in tiny amounts - "it was sold in match boxes" - because that was all the family could afford.

"We were very poor, especially during the recession years. But it was not just my family; many families were in the same situation.

"At some point I was given a small shovel and some other equipment miners used. I played at mining, and became enthusiastic. It set me on the path to becoming a miner myself. Anyway, there was little else for me to do. I got through 8th grade at school, but then had to leave because my parents could not afford to keep me in school."

Jorge began working in earnest in the mines in 1972. He believes his work prospects were further limited by his active participation in left-wing politics. Many mining companies shunned anyone who had shown signs of political activism.

"I first worked at San Jose mine in 1984. It was an old mine but had just re-opened under new management. I worked there about five months but left because it wasn't well paid, only minimum wages - though the food was really good. But you couldn't work just for the food."

He moved to east to the town of Salvador, also in the Atacama Desert but 2,300 metres above sea level. There he worked for contractors doing maintenance in mines around the region. Quite often he lived in a tent camp by the mine he was working in, where the temperature of the desert shifted dramatically, with very hot days and cold nights.

During this period he was often required to work without ear defenders. He blames this for his poor hearing now; a doctor has advised him to start wearing a hearing aid.

His contracting work was sporadic, so when, in 2000, his brother told him of an opening back at San Jose, he took it.

"It was a stable job, I needed a more stable existence; and here at least we could shower once a day, but quite often I worked shifts of 18 hours, which was too much. I was a service master; I installed water pipes and air conditioning and ventilation shafts."

Jorge spotted the cracks in the roofing which eventually triggered the collapse which trapped him and 32 others. He even kept notes of how much the crack was growing. But, as he says in the film, the mine's manager asked him not to speak about, and Jorge was afraid of losing his job.

He suffered two injuries himself.

"In December, 2009 I broke a rib when I was installing a ventilator. I was in a bad position and I didn't have the right equipment but I had to do it. I was leaning against the mountain to bolt the ventilator to the rock when I slipped on a greasy patch. In order not to fall on my back I threw myself to the side and cracked a rib. At least my back was not badly hurt."

But his second accident did injure his back. "A rock fell on me. I had been on a team fortifying a tunnel. As the person in charge of the team, I went to check we had left nothing behind. That's when a rock fell and hit me on the head and cut a part of my buttock."

After his back was injured, the management sent him for treatment at a private clinic. The mine's insurers were not informed. The more accidents in a mine, the higher the insurance premiums paid by the mine's owners. 

Trapped

Jorge has never spoken about his experience when trapped in the mine. He feels bound by the pledge the 33 made to each other not to talk about what happened in the shelter, and regrets that some have broken that pledge. (We asked those we interviewed only about how they themselves had fared during the ordeal; we did not ask them about each other.)

Jorge recalled with emotion how proud he was when, while still in their underground dungeon, the 33 became a centrepiece of Chile's bicentennial celebrations. They were held up as representing the best of Chilean spirit. On bicentennial day, September 18, the 33 sung the national anthem on prime time television.

"It was very overwhelming, so much emotion when we heard the speeches praising us, to be in all the newspapers and, when we went later to the presidential palace and were awarded the bicentenary medal, I felt so proud."

Jorge was rescued at 09.34 on October 13.

Aftermath

Jorge Galleguillos leaves the hospital in Copiapo after being discharged on October 15, 2010 [EPA]

Like Mario Gomez, Jorge finds himself treated with more respect than before.

"When I would enter the town hall or some official building, they would demand my ID and ask me questions. Now it is very different. People generally address me with respect, officials will guide me to where I need to go. And I have been greeted by the president of the republic, by ministers, by the provincial governor. I never imagined such things would happen to me.

"On the other hand, there are many in Copiapo who think we are rolling in money now. They don't ask me 'how are you?' anymore, they just say 'hey, you guys have all the money now!' One friend rang and just asked for a 'loan' to pay his household bills."

Jorge sees one real benefit from the ordeal they endured.

"It was worth it in one way: it has drawn attention to the problems of mining, the dangers, the lack of dignity given to the workers."

He follows closely the political debate on measures to improve safety and has given testimony to a congressional committee on mining safety, recounting bad practices he observed in the San Jose mine.

He thinks the 33 miners should be given support by the state. 

"There was talk of giving the older ones of us who were trapped a pension but nothing has happened. Every time I run into a politician, I ask what's up with all this, what is actually being done. I have spoken to two of the region's senators. Senator Vilches says he is working on it, Senator Allende said to me she had not promised such a thing. The fact is it will be hard for us to find new work at our age, and many cannot face going back into the mines. 

"I think the younger ones amongst us should be offered retraining. They have so much life still ahead of them, and they have good experience already, as electricians, in drilling, maintenance, they have good skills that could be used elsewhere with a little extra training. The state should give them this."

Jorge aims to buy a truck and set up in business collecting minerals from small piquinero mines and transporting them for processing. But at the moment he does not have enough money to buy a good truck. Having made no pension contributions in his working life, he is hoping that the extra money he needs will come from either the royalties on a Hollywood movie about the 33, now in production, or from the compensation they are demanding from the San Jose mine owners.

Jorge says that he wants a different life for his son. "All I want is for him to be a professional and never to have to live the life I lived, working often in poor conditions, travelling to find the next job and often living in a camp next to the mine."

When we met him in April, 2011, Jorge was still suffering post-traumatic stress. His emotions ran high as he recalled the ordeal and talked of his life now. He acknowledged that he is finding everyday life hard to cope with, but he believes he is making progress in getting back to his old self.

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Claudio Acuña, 35
Claudio Acuña, right, and Mario Sepúlveda greet the crowd at the government palace in Santiago [EPA]

Claudio Acuña had his 35th birthday while trapped in the mine. "I was a bit sad being without my family, but they sent me some cake and I was sent a shirt of the team I support, Colo-Colo, signed by all the players, and the miners all sang Happy Birthday to me," he says.
 
Claudio has five brothers and three sisters. He first went mining with his father when he was 11 years old. "Sometimes I'd skip school to join him, I always liked mining. I was so proud of him, of what he did."
 
He started working full-time with his dad when he was 15. The first mine was a gold mine. His father later switched to a copper mine, where two of his brothers joined them. But they never earned much from it.

"When the price of copper fell, my dad got behind in his payments for the mine and he lost the mine."

At the time of the San Jose accident, in August 2010, Claudio was working for a local contractor. He had a job lined up for September and took a month-long contract at San Jose. On his first day there, he realised that the mine was dangerous. "There were tunnels everywhere, but practically no escape shafts."

He nevertheless decided to keep working there. "I was driving a giant scoop truck, which was new for me and was what I wanted to do. That paid almost double what I usually earned, and I had been saving up to buy a car. I told my wife about the conditions and she said I should resign. I said I would only be there for a month. The cave-in happened on my fifth day, and in the end I stayed in the mine for two months!"

During the ordeal, it was his faith, and thoughts of his family that kept him going. "I knew my father would have wanted me to stay strong. I wanted to honour his memory with my courage. And I thought of my family. I must survive for them. Maybe my wife would have the chance to marry again, if I did not survive, but my daughter, she needed her father."

Claudio showed us some of the official gifts he has received - a small silver globe inscribed with 'best wishes, Shimon Peres, President of Israel' given during his trip to Israel; a miniature replica of the Phoenix capsule in which the 33 were brought to the surface, presented by Sebastian Pinera, the president of Chile; a memento from the organisers of the Dakar Car Rally, the route of which in 2010 included the Atacama Desert.

He believes his experience being trapped has changed him: "I'm not the same man I was, I am more sensitive, more caring. My family is even more important to me now, especially my daughter. I want to spend the rest of my life with them, so I spend more time with my family."

Claudio's wife also found the whole experience and the media attention very difficult, and she too has suffered emotionally. Claudio said that life at home has not yet returned to a steady normality.

Claudio does not want to work in the mines again. He hopes to open a shop with the money he has received and is determined to make the best of his situation, especially for his children.

"I want my children to have the education I did not have. I studied only to 8th grade. I want them to have a full education, to have the chance of a good job. At least to be able to have choices in what work they do."

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There are inevitably divisions and disagreements among the 33 over how much to speak about what went on underground and over how they should share the money they make from doing so. But for the most part, they remain united. 

Mario Gomez says: "We meet almost every week and we keep in touch with the ones no longer in Copiapo. I think our group will never be undone. We stayed united underground, in such difficult conditions. I think we'll always be united. And I think it's important for us to stay united."

 


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