La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Chile miners

Trapped miners in Chile begin receiving cigarettes

Fuerza mineros chile miners

The 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet underground in a mine in Chile have persuaded officials to meet one of their most ardent requests since making contact with the surface: cigarettes. The regional governor in Atacama, where the San Jose mine is located, told reporters this weekend that the miners will now receive two cigarette packs a day, or 40 smokes, to ration among them.

"We're ready to do what we can to lift the miners' spirits," said Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich. A doctor in the rescue operation told the Agence France-Presse news agency that the miners were "responsible people" who could administer the cigarettes on their own.

The decision to send down smokes came after ventilation was improved in the shelter where the miners await their rescue. Previous measures to alleviate the miners' craving for cigarettes, nicotine patches and gum, were not effective, reports said.

The men are still not being allowed alcohol, however, another request they've insisted on.

"For tobacco companies chafing at advertising restrictions it could be a promotional dream, though it was not immediately known which brand was delivered, nor how many of the miners smoke," reported the Guardian.

The miners have been trapped underground since Aug. 5. Three holes are now being dug concurrently to reach them, but that's not expected to occur until November or even Christmas. As reported previously on La Plaza, the Chile mine rescue effort is now considered one of the most complex and difficult rescue efforts in history. Experts from NASA have been brought in to assess and advise on the effort. (The NASA people had recommended against cigarettes for the men.)

The miners are also expected to begin receiving electricity to improve lighting in the shelter and help the miners' sleeping patterns. They are also beginning an exercise regimen.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A message of 'Be strong, miners!' adorns a structure at the San Jose mine surface camp for rescuers and relatives. Credit: Associated Press

A long, precarious wait for trapped miners in Chile

Chile miners rescue video conference image

It's been more than a month of waiting now for "Los 33" of Chile, the miners trapped 2,300 feet underground at a gold and copper mine in the remote Atacama desert. The 33 men have had videoconferences with loved ones, watched a Chile-Ukraine soccer match on a tiny fiber-optic feed and sent "dirty jokes" up to the surface to keep their spirits up.

But as the rescue effort at the San Jose mine bears on slowly, concerns remain high for the miners' psychological state, reports Chris Kraul in The Times. Kraul notes that the miners' emergency shelter is "almost as deep as two Empire State Buildings laid end to end." By Sept. 18, Independence Day in Chile, rescuers will be drilling three competing holes 200 yards from one another in a race to reach the miners as quickly as possible.

The mine caved in Aug. 5, and the miners, all of them Chilean except for one Bolivian national, made contact with the surface Aug. 22 in a handwritten note: "We are fine, the 33 of us in the shelter." The news was met with cheers across Chile, but reality quickly set in. Efforts to dig a tunnel to reach and release the miners from their humid, dark chamber could take three to four months, or until late November or December.

Experts brought in from NASA, the U.S. space agency, said the miners were remarkably healthy and sound. They are already the longest-trapped miners in history, and the rescue operation is now considered one of the most complex and difficult ever recorded.

But in the waiting, could one of the miners "crack" and harm the others? What if the miners "rebel" against the rescue plans? What about the growing risk of skin infections?

The Guardian reports that the miners' requests for wine and cigarettes are becoming ever more insistent. They've complained about the practice of selective mail delivery (the government wants them to receive only positive messages), and they've ignored certain explicit government orders, using vehicles inside the mine even though they've been told not to do so.

"He totally cursed me out; they are not sending the letters to him," a son of trapped miner Victor Zamora told the Guardian. "He is going to blow up down there."

In the meantime, the miners aren't just waiting idly. The workers will have to move 4,000 tons of rock, in 24-hour shifts, as drilling continues to try to reach them.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Trapped miner Claudio Yanez speaks with loved ones Sept. 4. Credit: Chile federal government

Trapped miners in Chile request 'a little glass of wine'

Mineros chile photo el pais

Complex drilling has begun on a tunnel to rescue 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground in a Chilean desert, a process that could take three to four months despite Chile's efforts to speed up the process. The miners are already the longest-trapped in history. A landslide cut them off from the surface on Aug. 5 at the San Jose copper and gold mine in the Atacama region.

In a telephone conversation last week with President Sebastian Pinera, the miners reportedly asked for "a little glass of wine" to ease the wait and to celebrate Chile's bicentennial of independence, observed Sept. 18. "For the moment, there will be no alcohol. Nor tobacco, although almost all of them have asked for some," writes a Chile correspondent for Spain's El Pais (link in Spanish).

"All we can do is give them Vitamin B and folic acid," a government official told the paper.

The requests raise the issue of how to keep the miners psychologically sound as they prepare for a long wait. The government said five of the miners were suffering from depression and were receiving counseling.

The private company that owns the mine, San Esteban, has said it now has no money to pay the miners' wages and is not participating in the rescue effort, which is being headed by Chile's state-owned mining company. In 2007 the mine's executives were charged with involuntary manslaughter for an accident that killed one worker.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Video still of miners trapped in Chile. Credit: Reuters via El Pais

Trapped miners in Chile face long wait

Chile president miners note

Chilean miners trapped 2,300 feet underground since Aug. 5 signaled that they were alive and relatively healthy on Sunday, but freeing them from the collapsed mine could take up to four months.

"We are fine, the 33 of us in the shelter," read one the notes sent up a drilled hole about as wide as a grapefruit.

A beaming President Sebastian Pinera held the note aloft for news cameras and relatives gathered at the small gold and copper mine in Chile's far north. The privately owned mine, called San Jose, is near the city of Copiapo in the desert region of Atacama.

Rescuers were able to lower a video camera into the shaft but no audio link. Grainy black-and-white footage showed the dazed eyes of a single miner. Authorities are now working to get the miners glucose, enriched mineral water, and medicines, as well as microphones to establish communication.

Cheers, weeping, and celebrations followed at the mine and across Chile when the news spread. The miners' note has reignited a sense of national unity in Chile similar to the coming-together that swept the country after the devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake of Feb. 27, as the internationally known Chilean television personality Don Francisco told CNN Chile (video link in Spanish).

On Monday, Pinera warned that those responsible for the San Jose mine's collapse would face consequences and promised an overhaul of the country's mine regulations (link in Spanish). Mining accidents are relatively rare in Chile, the world's largest producer of copper. An explosion at the San Jose mine killed three workers in 2007, which led to the mine's temporary closure, reports said.

The eldest of the trapped miners, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, also wrote a letter to his wife that was sent up to the surface. It said in part: "This company has got to modernize. [...] But I want to tell everyone I'm OK, and am sure we will survive."

— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Sebastian Pinera holding the San Jose miners' note. Credit: Hector Retamal / Associated Press

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