ANNALS OF SURVIVAL: SIXTY-NINE DAYS – The ordeal of the Chilean miners – by HÉCTOR TOBAR (The New Yorker Magazine – July 7, 2014)

The San José Mine is situated inside a round, rocky, and lifeless mountain in the Atacama Desert, in Chile. Once every dozen years or so, a storm system sweeps across the desert, dropping a torrent of rain. When that happens, the dust turns to mud as thick as freshly poured concrete. Charles Darwin briefly passed through this corner of the Atacama in 1835. In his journal, he described the desert as “a barrier far worse than the most turbulent ocean.”

In the deeper desert, miners are the only conspicuous living presence; they ride in trucks and buses to the mountains, which contain gold, copper, and iron. The minerals draw workers to the Atacama from all over Chile. On the evening of August 3, 2010, Juan Carlos Aguilar began a bus journey of more than a thousand miles to reach the San José Mine, leaving from the temperate rain forests near Valdivia.

Raúl Bustos left for work the next morning, from the port city of Talcahuano, eight hundred miles south of the mine. He travelled along a flat landscape filled with greenhouses, tractors, and the cultivated fields of Chile’s agricultural heartland, passing through the town of Talca, where José Henríquez, a tall, devout Christian, boarded yet another bus. Mario Sepúlveda, a forty-year-old father of two, took a bus from the outskirts of Santiago, five hundred miles away.

When the men reached the port city of Coquimbo, nearly two hundred and fifty miles from the San José Mine, they joined the path that Darwin had followed. In Darwin’s time, the country was only twenty-five years old, and his small expedition rode overland with four horses and two mules, making notes about Chile’s geology and its flora and fauna.

In the village of Caleta Los Hornos, the men on the buses glimpsed the Pacific Ocean as the Pan-American Highway passed along the beach. While travelling through the region, Darwin saw a hill that was being mined, “drilled with holes, like a great ants’ nest.” When he rode north, he came upon the funeral of a miner; the pallbearers were dressed in long, dark woollen shirts, leather aprons, and bright-colored sashes.

The men of the San José Mine had also mourned the loss of fellow-workers, and seen friends maimed by sudden explosions of seemingly solid rock. Deep underground, they had built a shrine to one of the victims. Bustos, a relative newcomer to the San José, carried a rosary with him.

In exchange for good wages, the men accepted the possibility of death. Each miner made at least twelve hundred dollars a month—triple Chile’s minimum wage—working seven-day tours, divided into twelve-hour shifts that kept the mine producing around the clock.

At the bus terminal in Copiapó, the city closest to the mine, the men unloaded their bags and took a short ride in communal taxis to the rooming houses where they were to sleep for the next seven nights. The following morning, they headed on buses toward the inner Atacama Desert, finally coming to the cutoff for the San Esteban Mining Company and the San José Mine. The buildings on the hillside came into focus: administration bungalows, locker and shower rooms, cafeterias—corroded structures of wood, tin, and steel.

The stone that forms the mountains north of Copiapó was born of the earth’s magma more than a hundred and forty million years ago. For aeons, a mineral-rich broth rose up through the fissures of the Atacama Fault System. Eventually, the broth solidified, becoming ore layered with interlocking veins of quartz, chalcopyrite, and other minerals.

The San José Mine was nearly as deep as the tallest building on earth is tall. From the surface, the drive to the lowest part was about four miles. Underground, where men had been digging for gold and copper since 1889, the mine expanded like an iceberg city. Roads led to interior spaces carved out by explosives and machinery, pathways to man-made galleries and canyons. The city had its own weather, with temperatures that rose and fell, and breezes that shifted at different times of the day. The mine’s byways had traffic signs and rules. The central road linking all these passageways to the surface was called the Ramp.

In the early-morning hours of August 5th, two thousand feet belowground, the night shift was finishing its work. Men covered in soot and drenched in sweat gathered in one of the caverns, waiting for a truck that would take them on the forty-minute drive to the surface. During their shift, they had noted a wailing rumble in the distance—the sound of many tons of rock falling in forgotten caverns deep inside the mountain. The noise and the vibrations caused by these avalanches were transmitted through the mountain much as lightning strikes travel through the air and the ground. “The mine is weeping a lot,” the men said to one another. A few mentioned the rumblings to the men on the next shift, but there was no sense of alarm. The thunder always receded and the mountain eventually returned to its steady, quiet state.

The entrance to the San José Mine was five metres wide and five metres tall, and the edges that faced the outside world resembled stone teeth. Inside, sea level was the point of reference. The entrance was at Level 800—eight hundred metres above sea level. The Ramp descended into the mountain as a series of switchbacks. Men in dump trucks, front loaders, pickup trucks, and other machines drove down past Level 200, where there were still minerals to be brought to the surface, working in passageways that led from the Ramp to the veins of ore-bearing rock.

Two men were working at Level 40, twenty-four hundred and ninety vertical feet below the surface, loading freshly blasted ore into a dump truck. Another group was at Level 60, fortifying a passageway near a spot where a man had lost a limb in an accident the previous month. A few men were resting briefly inside or near the Refuge, a room about the size of a classroom, carved out of the rock at Level 90. The Refuge was supposed to be a shelter in the event of an emergency—it had a heavy metal door—but it also served as a break room; fresh air was pumped in from the surface, offering a respite from the humidity, which often reached ninety-eight per cent, and the heat, which could reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Geothermal heat emanating from the bowels of the earth made the mine hotter the deeper the men went.

Juan Carlos Aguilar, Raúl Bustos, and two other mechanics found respite from the heat in a workshop at Level 150, in a passageway not far from a vast interior chasm called the Pit. Air circulated through the Pit, and the faintest hint of a breeze flowed from the chasm into the workshop.

Around 1 p.m., a fifty-two-year-old driver named Franklin Lobos left the surface in the personnel truck, with Jorge Galleguillos riding shotgun; they were heading down to pick up other miners to bring them to the surface for lunch. Galleguillos, at fifty-six, was one of the oldest men in the mine. He had been filing safety complaints with the mine’s managers, his own addendum to a long chronicle of problems at the mine. In 2007, the Chilean government ordered the San José Mine closed after an explosion killed a geologist’s assistant. The mine reopened after its owners assured the government that they would take a series of steps to improve safety, such as installing systems to monitor the constantly shifting rock inside the mountain. Many of the steps were never fully carried out.

The personnel truck that Lobos was driving did not have working headlights. Lobos, a retired professional soccer player and a onetime local celebrity, had taken a job at the San José to help pay his daughters’ college tuition. He used the truck’s fog lamps on his descent. The low beams illuminated a sinuous gray tunnel. Suddenly, a white streak moved past the truck’s windshield from right to left.

“Did you see that?” Galleguillos said. “That was a butterfly.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Lobos answered. “It was a white rock.”

Lobos said afterward that the collapse hit the miners as a roar of sound, as if a skyscraper were crashing down behind them. The vast, haphazard architecture of the mine, improvised over the course of a century, had given way. A single block of granite-like stone called diorite, as tall as a forty-five-story building, had broken loose and was falling through the layers of the mine, knocking out sections of the Ramp and creating a chain reaction as the mountain collapsed. Stone and ore were pulled downward to crash against other rocks, causing the surviving sections of the mine to shake violently.

In the workshop at Level 150, Bustos, who was forty and had survived an earthquake and a tsunami five months earlier in his home town of Talcahuano, scurried under the chassis of a Toro 400 loader as stones the size of oranges fell around him. So did Richard Villarroel, twenty-six years old, whose wife was six months pregnant with their first child. Aguilar grabbed onto a nearby water pipe. Then a second blast wave swept through the workshop from the other direction, dropping more stones from the nearby Pit. When the crashing sounds finally eased, one of the vehicles near the Pit’s edge was half buried in rock.

The blast wave continued to race downward, past a group of workers at Level 105. Just before it hit Level 100, Alex Vega, a native of Copiapó, who was waiting for the personnel truck, chatted with Edison Peña, a thirty-four-year-old Santiago native and mechanic. Someone shouted, “The mine is pancaking!” Minutes later, there was a gust of wind, and then they saw a cloud of dust flowing onto the Ramp from tunnels leading to abandoned sections of the mine. The cloud raced down the Ramp, showering the men with dirt and stones as they ran to the Refuge.

About ten vertical yards below, Samuel Ávalos, a forty-three-year-old father of three, was waiting for the personnel truck with a group of miners near the Refuge. The Refuge had a white tile floor, a cinder-block wall, and a steel door. Ávalos had taken off his sweat-soaked overalls, wrung them out, and hung them on a water pipe to dry. He was putting them back on when he heard the thunderclap.

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