Los 33: Chilean miners face up to a strange new world – by Angus Macqueen (Guardian -The Observer – July 17, 2011)


The rescue of 33 miners from Chile’s San José mine after 69 days trapped underground was a triumph shared with the whole world. But the transition back to normality is proving difficult for both the men and their families

‘They are not heroes. We are not heroes. We are all victims,” murmurs Lilly Ramírez, the uncompromising partner of Mario Gómez. At 63, he was the oldest of “the 33” Chilean miners who were trapped half a mile under the Chilean desert on 5 August 2010, and whose rescue became a global event for a TV audience of an estimated 1 billion people.

Ever since they emerged 69 days later on the night of 12/13 October, I have been working on two BBC documentaries: about what happened while the men were down the mine – and what has happened to them and their families since. Now, as the first anniversary approaches, it is the tenacity and the suffering of the women – the wives and partners – that emerges. They and their men were certainly victims but I am not sure Lilly is right: there are certainly heroines – from Lilly herself to the many other women who have struggled ever since to keep their families together. For their men emerged famous, but changed.

For Lilly, the beginning of the story that August night comes straight from the nightmares of miners’ families the world over. She was preparing dinner as usual for Mario, one of their four daughters, Romina, and their one-year-old granddaughter Camila when there was the proverbial “knock on the door”. A manager from the mine was standing there. Lilly remembers the man saying there had been an accident at the pit but that they were bringing in the required machinery and the men should be free by morning. “I told him that he could not fool me. I told him that I knew the terrible state of that mine and that if there had been a collapse there was no way the men would be out by morning.”

She dropped everything and forced the manager to drive her for an hour to the pithead – little more than a big hole in the rocky hillside and a couple of cabins. She was to stay there in the middle of the Atacama desert, among the driest places on earth, for the next 69 days, only returning home when Mario had been rescued. By then he had been through a traumatic near-death experience but had also become among the most famous people on the planet. Today, Lilly and Mario are still struggling to understand what happened to him and to them.

The San José mine produced the usual mix of copper, gold and other minerals that makes the rock under the desert in northern Chile among the most valuable in the world. Both Lilly and Mario knew it was more dangerous than most – more than 100 years old, the mine comprised huge tunnels that had been driven down over half a mile into the mountainside. Eight miners had died there since 2000 and it had been closed briefly after an accident in 2007. The owners, the San Esteban mining company, paid a premium of 20% for people to work there. Mario was earning just that little bit more before retiring, but he never imagined the possibility of a collapse like this. “I knew the mine had its problems, but I never imagined that the main tunnel would collapse,” he says.

When Lilly arrived at the mine that first evening, she found the first rescue teams emerging, having found no way through to the trapped men. “It was chaos. No one knew what was going on.” The mine administrators on the surface were not even sure quite how many people had been trapped. Lilly knew from Mario’s stories of the day-to-day inefficiencies of the mine that it was badly run: “I trusted no one.” As soon as she arrived, she sensed that rescue teams might pull out, insisting that no more could be done.

She felt that if the managers were constantly cutting corners on safety, they would hardly commit easily to the possible costs of a full-scale rescue and all that might involve. Apocryphal stories of how miners are simply left to die after an accident are commonplace across Latin America. So Lilly and the other relatives who had made it to the mine “picked up sticks and bars”, confronted the police and blocked the road. “We knew that if they [the rescuers] left, then it would all be over. So we begged the rescue teams not to abandon us, but to help us put pressure on the managers who were there.”

The regional police chief, who was at the mine that first night, confirms this was the critical moment. Without the families’ intervention he believes the miners might well have been left entombed after the failure of the first attempt to find a way through the main tunnel.

In all the backslapping triumph of the final rescue, the story of those first uncertain days tends to be forgotten. Few remember how Lilly and the other women managed to transform a local tragedy into a national event and so save their men. There was little good news in those first days. The next day rescue teams emerged saying a boulder the size of the Empire State Building had collapsed inside the mountain, taking down eight levels of the mine. And the mountain was still moving. They also said there was no way down the main tunnel and that the specially designed escape shafts, supposed to work in such an eventuality, were either blocked or had collapsed.

Lilly was having none of such defeatism. She remembers: “The authorities up there tried to kick us out. They told us that the children would get sick, that they should be at school… That we had no business up at the mine… That we were getting in the way.” By now, most of the Gómez family had turned up – as had many of the other relatives, camped out beside the mine, setting up what would later be known all over the world as Camp Hope.

Lilly’s voice turns scornful at the patronising tone taken towards them by the very male world of mining. It is an environment where men know best, and women aren’t allowed to enter a mine for fear of bringing bad luck.

Looking at the images of those first days, it is astonishing to see these desperate women exploit the power of the media, first on local TV. “We called on the president of Chile not to allow our men to be abandoned,” remembers Lilly. “We appealed to him as a father, as a family man, saying how he should put himself in our shoes.” The women’s raw emotion found an audience.

They were lucky. The government had been heavily criticised for its handling of an earthquake and tsunami six months previously. The new business-driven president, Sebastián Piñera, was also perceived as aloof and indifferent to the common worker. Faced with these appeals, the mining minister, Laurence Golborne, was dispatched to the scene. Recalls Elvira “Katty” Valdivia, wife of one of the trapped men, Mario Sepúlveda: “We realised more and more journalists were turning up… so if we were unhappy we almost ate the minister and went out and held a press conference. The press realised we were doing their work for them – holding the government to task.” Certainly Golborne was responsible for the government taking over the rescue and saying that no expense would be spared in trying to find the trapped men. His transformation from villain – the minister responsible for the regulatory system that allowed the mine to function and that employed just three inspectors for 884 mines in the region – into smiling, smooth, English-speaking global TV star over the following 69 days was one of the minor miracles of the whole story.

The first 17 days were the worst for the families: the days and nights when no one knew if any of the miners were even alive. As one of those trapped underground says: “At least we knew we were alive but might die. For our families there was the torment of not knowing.” Elvira talks of never sleeping and not knowing what to tell her children. She was never certain that she was not simply waiting to pick up the body of her husband.

For Lilly, the period remains a blur. “I barely slept or ate. It was like I was punishing myself. It is wrong if I eat and he’s not eating.” Days of optimism were followed by failure when probes broke or were driven off course by the rock. Lilly says she never doubted Mario was alive. She sensed him next to her. “I know that sounds mad but I felt him with me as I lay down. I felt his breath.” She was sure that at least some of them were alive somewhere beneath the desert floor. But would the rescuers get to them in time?

For the rest of this article, please go to The Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/17/chilean-miners-one-year-on