COPIAPO, Chile – For some, it’s like it happened yesterday; for others it’s been an eternity. But none has been the same since.
A decade after 33 Chilean miners spent more than two months stranded about a half-mile underground, that group of men are still haunted by the experience and struggling to cope with the rage they feel over their perceived abandonment and neglect.
At 2:30 pm on Aug. 5, 2010, a cave-in at the San Jose gold and copper mine in the northern Atacama Desert cut off the only route to the mine’s entrance.
“There was a shock wave. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. I thought it was a blasting (operation),” Omar Reygadas, who at the time was in the deepest part of the mine, some 700 meters (2,300 feet) below the surface, recalled in remarks to EFE.
“We knew this could happen. The mine was constantly creaking. It was constantly warning us. But the bosses only cared about output,” Jorge Galleguillos, another survivor of the mining accident near the northern city of Copiapo, told EFE.
After 17 anguishing days in which the miners had no contact with the outside world and subsisted on a half of a cracker and two spoons of canned tuna every 48 hours, a drill bore through to a spot near the chamber where the 33 had taken refuge in total darkness.
When the drill returned to the surface, a small message was tied to it that read, “We are OK in the refuge, the 33.”
Rescuers then embarked on a race against time to widen the diameter of the 20-centimeter (eight-inch) bore hole so they could pull out the miners one by one.
That gargantuan task concluded with an Oct. 13 rescue operation that began shortly after midnight and lasted more than 21 hours. More than 1 billion people followed the Internet livestream of the operation, which was carried out with help from NASA and was a source of national pride.
The miners were held up as examples of resilience and teamwork and celebrated as national heroes.
They were invited to television studios and traveled to different parts of the world, including the United States, Israel, Spain and the United Kingdom; they met with the pope and served as inspiration for a 2015 Hollywood film starring Antonio Banderas.
But the reality of these men is very different today.
They have next to no contact with one another and get by for the most part on a monthly pension that started at 315,000 pesos and now amounts to 400,000 pesos, or roughly $520 at the current exchange rate and half of what they earned as miners.
Jimmy Sanchez, who was just 19 at the time of the accident and had only been a miner for five months, still speaks with a trembling voice about the terrifying ordeal.
“I was 25 when I started to realize everything that had happened. It affected me a lot. I was in bad shape. I cut my arms to vent (my emotions),” he said.
The therapist assigned to Sanchez by the government following the rescue ended those sessions after three months, and he now struggles to come up with the money to afford a psychiatrist.
Speaking from Copiapo, the city 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of the mine that is the hometown of most of the rescued men, he said he has not been formally employed for 10 years and lives at his parents’ home with his wife and two children because he cannot afford his own place.
“A lot of people made money off of our suffering, and that hurts. It wasn’t our fault that we were trapped, and we have to settle for a meager pension,” Sanchez said.
Claudio Yañez, who is 44 and also struggling financially, says employers won’t hire him for fear he will call attention to continued poor mine safety conditions in Chile, the world’s leading copper producer.
“We weren’t heroes. We were victims,” he said while looking at a photo on the wall showing his wife waiting outside the mine during the rescue operation.
San Esteban Primera S.A., the mine’s owner, was absolved of wrongdoing for the cave-in even though a legislative investigation showed evidence of flagrant negligence.
All but two of the rescued miners then later won a lawsuit against the Chilean government, which was instructed in 2018 to pay each man more than $100,000 each. But the State Defense Council has appealed that sentence with the argument that the miners had already been granted a pension for life as compensation.
The resolution of that case is still pending.
“The judge who exonerated the mining company said the responsibility was ours because we knew it was very dangerous. They just about made us pay compensation to the owners,” Reygadas said sarcastically, adding that the subsequent media harassment was worse than being trapped underground.
“In Chile, if you don’t have money, you’re nobody. The mine owners must’ve paid some money under the table so the case would go nowhere,” said Sanchez, who added that despite promises to the contrary the miners have not received a cent in revenue from the movie depicting their ordeal.
Although 2020 marks 10 years since the rescue of the miners, there will be no commemorative event due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Galleguillos, the second-oldest member of the group, said he is holding out little hope that the miners will receive any additional compensation. But he is still insisting that Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, who also was head of state at the time of the cave-in, follows through on his pledge to build a large visitors center at the mine.
“The mine gave birth 33 times. We’re children of the earth and it’s important for people to know that something historic happened here, which I hope never happens again,” he said while looking at the hole through which he was returned to the surface 10 years ago in a steel rescue capsule.