Mining is one of the pillars of Chile’s economy; the country is the world’s top producer of copper. Thus, when an August 5 cave-in at the San Jose gold and copper mine in Chile’s northern Atacama Desert trapped 33 miners 2,300 feet underground, the disaster was a blow to the nation’s identity. For 17 long days, no one knew the miners’ fates. Rescuers drilled frantically here and there, sending down probes in hopes of finding the mine’s emergency shelter. On August 22, one probe came back with a note tied to the end: “Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33” — “We are OK in the refuge, the 33.”
Joy, however, was tempered. Government officials estimated that it could take up to four months to dig a tunnel wide enough to bring up the miners.
“Los 33” quickly became the nation’s No. 1 priority. The bore hole that had reached them was widened enough to send food, water, medicine, clothes, and a mini camera to enable video messages to their families. A telephone line was threaded down, plus a fiber-optic cable for videoconferencing, and they were able to watch live TV and movies on a small projector. Psychologists, health experts, and nutritionists were consulted about how the miners could stay sane and healthy in their 600-square-foot chamber until their rescue.
The miners could roam the intact tunnels, but by early September they showed signs of cabin fever. There were reports of joyriding on mine vehicles; the miners rejected a delivery of peaches; and they grew more aggressive in demanding wine and cigarettes. But there were also bright spots, like the birth of one miner’s daughter on September 14, which he was able to watch via video link. The parents had originally planned to name her Carolina, but down in the mine, the father changed his mind. “Call her Esperanza, or Hope,” he said. Chilean Independence Day, September 18, brought a special treat of empanadas, a traditional Chilean pastry filled with meat, onions, olives, and raisins.
By early October, Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera announced that the rescue would take place in a couple of weeks, well ahead of schedule. Journalists descended on the site as the hour grew near, and more than 3,000 people gathered to watch the rescue on giant TV monitors in the nearby provincial capital, Copiapo, hometown of most of the miners. Millions more watched worldwide on TV or online. Experts warned that the miners might be suffering from ailments brought on from captivity or from their trip up in a tiny capsule. Yet on October 13, they emerged, one by one, looking perfectly healthy and wearing sunglasses donated by Oakley to protect their eyes from the glare. One miner, a former soccer star, bounced a soccer ball on his foot. All reunited with their families, who had kept vigil above ground.
In the weeks that had passed, much of the miners’ personal lives had been dissected, including five promised weddings and a more complicated romantic dilemma involving an above-ground encounter between a miner’s wife and his mistress. (The drama had inspired one American to compose a song, “Gold n Copper Mine Blues.”) But underground, Los 33 had made a pact to tell their story as a group. A few details emerged as they traded interviews for cash — after all, their workplace was closed, and their employer was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Goodwill and gifts poured in from around the world. The miners played soccer with Chile’s president. The sole Bolivian lunched with his nation’s president and accepted a job at the state energy company. Two European soccer teams sent signed jerseys with an invitation to visit their stadiums; Apple CEO Steve Jobs sent iPod Touches; a Bosnian factory sent goatskin shoes; a Greek mining company offered a week of rest and relaxation; and Graceland extended a hand to the Elvis fan, who also ran the New York City Marathon.
The miners didn’t have to worry about employment, either. Companies lined up to offer them jobs that fit their experience, like bulldozer driver, mechanic, electrician, and risk-reduction specialist. Plus, they’re hoping for a book deal. But while one or two of the miners enjoyed the media limelight, the rest were ready to go back to their own lives, and some were ready to return to the mines.