Chile marks anniversary of San Jose Mine collapse

August 6, 2012

On Aug. 5, 2010 the roof of the San Jose Mine in Chile’s Atacama desert collapsed, leaving 33 miners trapped. They would be there for the next 69 days before an international rescue effort was able to free them. (Read ME’s account of the rescue here, log on required.)

On Sunday, the second anniversary of the collapse was recognized at the site of the now closed mine. President Sebastian Pinera was among those honoring the miners who survived in entrapment longer than anyone else before and he helped unveil a 5-m (16.6-ft) cross as part of a monument known as the “The 33 miners of Atacama: The miracle of life.”

“In such extreme, difficult circumstances you were able to bring out the best in yourselves,” Pinera told the miners at a ceremony. “You fought for your own lives with such strength, faith, hope and comradeship that it touched the fibers of men and women around the world.”

For the first 17 days of the ordeal there was no contact with the trapped miners and those on the surface looking for them. The miners survived eating tiny capsules of tuna and sips of expired milk. A narrow shaft finally reached their haven and the world learned they were alive.

That shaft allowed food and water to reach the men while rescuers drilled a bigger escape hole. Finally, in a flawless operation that ended in the early hours of Oct. 13, the miners were hauled up one-by-one in a cage through 610 m (2,000 ft) of rock as a worldwide television audience watched.

Back on the surface they were received as heroes for surviving so long, but the fantasy began to crumble soon after.

Many of the 33 ran out of money. Some began suffering from health and psychological problems. Others took to alcohol and drugs. Most are still kept up at night by memories of their ordeal.

Chile announced last year that 14 of the miners who are older than 50 or suffer from health problems that keep them from working would receive a lifetime pension of $540 a month. The miners have been secretive about the details of what happened during their entrapment, especially the days before they were found, hoping to strike gold in a film deal.

Now they're banking all their financial hopes on a Hollywood movie deal signed with "Black Swan" producer Mike Medavoy. The production will draw on a book being written about them by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hector Tobar.

The 33 will appear as extras in the film, said Remberto Valdes, a lawyer who represents the men. He said they have already received about $9,000 each for the film and $2,500 for the book and will get royalties from ticket sales.

The San Jose collapse brought the mine's safety record into focus and put mining, Chile's top industry, under close scrutiny. A congressional commission last year found its owners responsible for the cave-in at the 125-year-old mine.

Mining-related deaths fell 36 percent last year to 27, compared to 41 in 2010, the year of the cave-in, according to a report by the Mining Ministry. The report says accidents at Chile's 8,500 mines last year also fell by 40 percent, their lowest level in 21 years thanks to increased oversight by inspectors.

At the San Jose mine, Pinera urged lawmakers to fast-track the passing of a mining law that is stuck in Congress. If passed, it would create a new system of information safety, increase the number of inspections at mine sites and put harsher penalties on those who break the law.



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