A sprawling media town in the desert

Trapped miners’ friends and relatives wait for their rescue in the sprawling camp that has grown up around the mine.

“I am going to take you down the mine so that you understand that you shouldn’t ever want to be a miner,” a Chilean miner warns his six-year-old son.

Daniel Sanderson has brought young Christian to the entrance of a giant copper mine, similar to the one that’s been in the headlines for the last two months, ever since a collapse trapped 33 men deep underground in the mountains of the Atacama desert.

Daniel is familiar with the San Jose mine he was due to be working there on August 5 but at the last minute he decided to stay at home. If he’d gone to work he would have felt the huge rock fall at about 2pm that blocked the long spiral mineshaft and trapped many of Daniel’s friends, and his cousin.  

Since the accident Daniel says he’s felt guilty for not being with his colleagues on the day the mine collapsed. He says the mine owners have never cared much about safety and that many men “heard the mine crying a lot” in the days before the accident.

“The mountain moves inside and you hear a noise like the one you would hear if you break a watermelon in two,” he tells me. Daniel is just one of the many interesting people I’ve met while covering this story.

A few days earlier, when I was travelling to the mine from the town of Copiapo, my car broke down.

Producer Karina Gomes and I were picked up by a local NGO and in the car was the man overseeing the 33 miners’ safety, Alejandro Pinto. We talked about the San Jose mine and he explained that it had been shut down in 2007 for not meeting safety standards when a miner lost his leg in an accident. The mine soon reopened, after the man who ordered it shut down was reportedly fired.

The company that owns it – San Esteban Corporation – is facing a series of investigations now. I’ve been told that the maps the company has provided to the rescue workers aren’t even accurate.

The San Jose mine is a giant spiralling tunnel, it measures about 9km and goes down to a depth of 700 metres – that’s equivalent to two Empire State Buildings.

Fabio, a miner who has worked there for a few years, explained that his trapped colleagues have about 3km of open space to move around in. The mine shaft was blocked at its midpoint so in theory the miners have a big area in which to move around. But, as Fabio reminds me, it’s totally dark, extremely humid and obviously there are no bathrooms or showers. A normal mining shift is 14 hours long, the 33 men trapped below have down there for more than two months.

A lot of the information circling in the camp is based on rumours.

The government says the miners are optimistic, relatively healthy – considering the harsh environment and confinement situation – and calm.

“Way calmer than the media here,” Laurence Golborne, the minister of mines and energy, said.

But we also hear that the men were divided into three groups as tensions emerged, that their morale is low, and many are understandably depressed.

Luckily for them, an escape shaft was completed and on Wednesday, if things go well, they will be near their families at last.

More from Features
Most Read