Miners of "Los 33" wait for the mass to begin at Our Lady of the Candelaria of Copiapó on the first anniversary of the San José mine collapse.
By Nathan Frandino
COPIAPÓ – On a warm winter day in northern Chile, hundreds file into the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Candelaria of Copiapó. In the front three rows, a group of men sit, breaking their silence only to whisper in each other’s ears as cameras flash within inches of their faces. The men range in ages 20 to 64, but they’ve been bonded by an event that few experience and live to tell.
Friday marked the first anniversary of the San José mine collapse that left “los 33” trapped 2,300 feet below the surface for 69 days. Since their October 22 rescue, they’ve traveled the globe on speaking invitations, attended various celebrations, and in July, agreed to sell rights for a Hollywood movie.
But below the surface, in the year since the collapse, many of the miners struggle with health and financial problems. Their case mirrors that of the country’s, which faces numerous problems that have drained the optimism that the rescue left behind. The effects of mining safety regulations that will continue to shape the future of this group and the rest of Chile’s mining industry have yet to be seen.
“I don’t like to go out anymore,” Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest miner, says. “I stay at home a lot. I like to be alone. I can’t sleep at night.”
Sanchez was on the job for five months when the collapse happened. When he reached the surface as the fifth miner rescued, he was overjoyed with seeing his friends and family, especially his daughter Barbara. But the memories still haunt Sanchez.
“I don’t like to talk about those things with them,” Sanchez says, referring to discussing his ordeal with his family.
Sanchez isn’t alone. Mario Gomez, the oldest miner, suffers flashbacks of the tragedy and can’t sleep either. Gomez and fellow miner Yonnis Barrios have been diagnosed with silicosis, a common respiratory disease found among miners.
Most have not been able to return to work due to those health problems and have returned to living in poverty. What little money they earned at first through donations has dwindled to nothing, and the movie deal won’t deliver any income for quite some time. Though details of the movie haven’t been released, filming of the movie is scheduled for next year.
When President Sebastián Piñera and various government actors achieved victory in the rescue, Chileans felt a relief. The country had just spent its fall and winter recovering from an 8.8-magnitude earthquake and tsunami when the mine collapsed. After the last miner reached the surface, it was a “rejuvenation,” Cristián Barra, Interior Ministry adviser and intermediary between the government and miners during the rescue, says.
“Obviously when things happen that are as emotionally strong, they generate unity and optimism, but furthermore, I believe that this optimism was because the country was on a path of growth, generating jobs that had not been generated in many years,” Barra says. “The country was returning to resume its course after a tragedy as big as the earthquake in February of last year.”
But when celebrations over the mine rescue ended, issue after issue wracked the nation. The approval of the HidroAysén dam project in Patagonia led to demonstrations, the La Polar scandal revealed that the department store chain, Chile’s fourth largest retailer, was scamming its credit card users, and demands for national education reform has spread across the country, with protests reaching levels not seen since the dictatorship.
The latest Adimark poll showed that Piñera’s approval rating fell to 30 percent—half of what it was following the miners’ rescue—bringing his disapproval rating to 62 percent.
The education movement even managed to interrupt Friday’s anniversary ceremonies. Two protesters were dragged out of the Candelaria mass ceremony, and later in the day, about 40 students marched toward the Regional Museum of Atacama where Piñera was presenting the miners with their note that told the world they were alive 17 days after the accident. Chile’s police force, the Carabineros, confronted the protesters and arrested five people.
Meanwhile, the Mining Ministry and the National Geology and Mining Company (Sernageomin) continue to investigate what went wrong at the San José mine and try to find out how to fix the safety issues plaguing the industry.
Since the accident, the miners have filed lawsuits against Sernageomin, the agency responsible for inspecting mines and issuing fines, for failing to take proper action against the San José mine owners, and against the owners, San Esteban Mining Company. They’re demanding $17 million from Sernageomin and $10 million from the owners, according to the Associated Press.
Some people have criticized the miners for the lawsuit against the state, but miner Samuel Avalos says the lawsuit is necessary to set a precedent. “We’re like an instrument sending this message that there has to be sufficient mine safety,” Avalos says.
Miner Juan Carlos Aguilar agrees. He says they’re not blaming the government or Chile, but that they’re simply holding Sernageomin accountable. “The demand was to Sernageomin so that justice can be made and what happened with us does not return,” he says.
To improve the mine safety, the former Mining Minister Laurence Golborne introduced the Law of Mining Security and Institutions in July to increase the number of inspectors from 18 to 45 and increase funding from $24 million to $56 million to a newly created Superintendency of Mining, which will be responsible for supervising mine safety.
Golborne said he’s confident that the new law will be effective. “We have reduced by half the number of fatal accidents this year in compared to previous year,” Golborne said, referring to 12 deaths through this time in 2011 compared to 27 in 2010. “We are changing legislation in order to increase fines and penalties and also to put other punishment for violations and negligence so we are working in that direction.”
As for the miners, they still have to wait. The pending lawsuits and legislation won’t bring them the needed financial or emotional relief anytime soon. Instead, they’re forced to live everyday simply as “los 33,” with an uncertain future.
“Before, I felt fine,” Sanchez says. “Now when these days arrived, they’ve been very difficult for me.”
Nathan Frandino, a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York, is currently a multimedia reporter for The Santiago Times.
[Photo: Nathan Frandino]