Columbians follow Chilean miners saga

Friday, September 24, 2010 | 2:48 p.m. CDT; updated 12:38 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 30, 2010

COLUMBIA — Carlos Martínez, a freshman at MU, struggles to find much in the American press about the saga of 33 miners trapped underground in his home country of Chile, and the distance weighs on him.

"I feel away from it, left out,” Martínez said.

A look at their lives

El Pais, a publication in Spain, takes a look at the testimonies from the 33 miners. The website is published in Spanish, but shares the miners and their families' stories.

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Martínez was not surprised when he read about the Aug. 5 mine accident in Copiapó, in north-central Chile.  "It had happened before," he said.

Martinez did not even follow the story much until he heard the shocking news that the 33 miners, 2,300 feet below ground, were still alive. "I couldn’t believe it," he said, speaking in his native Spanish.

When the explosion in the rock and subsequent cave-in was first reported, the miners were widely considered lost. It was, as Martinez expressed it, another accident involving miners in a country that has grown used to them. 

News reports for the week after the accident focused on how it occurred — apparently from an explosion — not on the fate of the miners. Coverage emphasized the copper mine's sketchy safety record, including its reopening in 2007 without fulfilling minimum safety requirement. Politicians got involved, and the public discussion around the accident became divisive. 

But 17 days after the accident happened the world was shaken by a story that seemed implausible: The 33 miners were alive. A message they had tied to a drill was received. A few hours later, an exultant President Sebastián Piñera held a white piece of paper on which the message was written: All 33 were OK. The image played around the world.

Chileans were stunned. Jubilant crowds and noisy cars filled the streets of Santiago. Chilean flags flew everywhere for the second time in six months, the first time following a devastating earthquake in February.

Ex-Missourian reporter on the scene

Meanwhile, former Missourian reporter Alonso Soto was covering the news for Reuters, for which he has been a correspondent in Santiago for more than a year. “The drama of the 33, ‘Los 33’, has gripped this mining nation that is still recovering from one of the world’s biggest quakes ever and following tsunamis that killed over 500 people and whipped out whole coastal villages in February,” Soto said.

Soto, who graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in 2005, traveled to the San José Mine in Copiapó after the accident on Aug. 5 and later returned for another four days after the miners were found alive.

"The mood among relatives has changed dramatically from despair and frustration in the immediate aftermath of the cave-in, to celebration and hope in their makeshift tent camp in middle of the Atacama Desert," Soto said. "I shared breakfast and long chats with many of the relatives who are now for the first time receiving images and talking to their loved ones who survived on mouthfuls of tinned tuna and cookies for weeks.”

Soto has almost direct contact with this drama and the victims’ families. "The miners’ stories are heartbreaking, from a former professional soccer star to a Bolivian migrant and a man who took a job at the mine after the earthquake left him unemployed.”

It is those stories, as well as the perseverance, tenacity and organization of the miners, that has made them a symbol of unity for the Chilean people and a source of admiration for the international public. A video that they filmed themselves, which shows their living conditions and offers reassurances to their families, has been seen around the world.

The country has shown unity to an extent that has surprised even its own inhabitants and the country’s experts. Chile has had an extremely polarized society for decades, even after the falling of Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship and the establishment of a democratic regime in 1990.Miners  have historically been a symbol for the left, and therefore were denigrated by the right. But, as former President Michel Bachelet said a couple of weeks ago, there is no question that the nation is united and that the miners are now a symbol for that unity.

Soto also reflected on the drama of these events. “It has been an emotional roller coaster for the miners, their relatives and Chileans who are hopeful the rescue will be a success, even if it takes months,” he said.

The long wait underground

And so far, it looks like it will take months to try to rescue these 33 national heroes, according to the technicians in charge of the rescue. While rescuers build a 26-inch-wide tunnel through which the miners will be removed from their particular underworld, it is all about maintaining their conditions of living as decently as possible. They are living in a constant temperature of almost 100 degrees and 95 percent humidity.

The Chilean authorities are implementing a plan to keep the miners alive. They send them food — mainly saline solutions, glucose and nutritional complements — and drinks through a tube, which they also use to communicate with their families. On top of the widely-seen first video that they recorded, they have been in touch with their close relatives through videoconferences several times.

A panel of NASA experts has been collaborating with the rescue team. Their most recent success was the installation of an artificial lighting system that simulates the night and the day inside the miner’s cavity.

The main concern is now their mental stability, through what is expected to be a long and exasperating process. “We are on a honeymoon now. The worst will come in October,” predicted Alberto Iturra Benavides, one of the psychologists assisting the miners and their families, in an interview with Spanish journal El País.

Iturra also said that the miners "are now happy" but that they will get worse as time goes by. After they are rescued, they will have to face almost daily interviews. To make their transition easier, the miners are receiving media training by the psychologists to prepare for life above ground.

The fact that some of the trapped miners used tobacco or alcohol regularly makes the situation more trying for them. Their recent request to be sent cigarettes and wine was rejected by both the NASA experts and the rescue team in the area.

Geology might save them

The question that caught people up in this saga is: Will "Los 33" be able to get out of the mine in which they are stuck safe and sound? How are they going to survive until the rescue team is capable of taking them out of there?

Miriam Barquero-Molina, teaching assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies of the department of geological sciences at MU, said that geology has the answer. “Surprisingly enough, it turns out that geology — actually, structural geology — might very well save these people, or at least keep them alive. Who ever thought,” she said.

Barquero-Molina has visited the area and its mines and knows how dry it is there. But there is clay in the mine, which is an advantage for the miners. "The clay acts as a seep for water," she said.

“The point is that there is water underground in this mine, which seeps along this clay that covers the walls, and it makes for a moist environment," she said. "The miners might even be able to drill somehow to find potable water. The water down there might be slightly acidic, not sure, might cause some health issues. But if push comes to shove, they can use it to supplement the water supplies that might be stored down there."

Chilean follows reaction at home

Gathering his information from both Chilean and American media, such as The New York Times, Martínez, the Chilean student, has strong feelings about how the miners and his country have been represented.

“I am proud to see the highly patriotic way in which people in my country have reacted to this tragedy, as well as to the earthquake. This sentiment of unity and national pride would have not happened in 1973," he said, referring to the year of Pinochet’s coup d’etat against Salvador Allende.

Martínez, however, criticizes the politicians in his country, for not having learned from February’s earthquake how to respond in an organized and immediate way. “The same (lack of coordination) happened again," Martínez said. "The contingency plans aren’t well defined."

Having lived in the United States for more than a year, Martínez has seen his country on the news just twice: the earthquake and now the miners' saga.

"It hurts me to only see my country (on the media) for such bad reasons," he said. "Chile is an example for other countries in Latin America. We have many good things, but people here don’t know about them."

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Amrita Jayakumar September 24, 2010 | 10:13 p.m.

This was a great read, very well written.....who knew we could bring Chile home to Columbia like this?

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