A cross in the middle of the world’s driest desert now marks the spot where a mine collapse trapped 33 men about 800m under the earth for 69 days.
Chile on Sunday marked the second anniversary of the cave-in at the San Jose mine in the Atacama desert, honoring the miners who survived in entrapment longer than anyone else before.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera traveled to the northern city of Copiapo to join the men at the mouth of the mine that nearly became their rocky grave. They unveiled a 5m cross as part of a monument known as the “The 33 miners of Atacama: The miracle of life.”
“In such extreme, difficult circumstances you were able to bring out the best in yourselves,” Pinera told the miners at a ceremony. “You fought for your own lives with such strength, faith, hope and comradeship that it touched the fibers of men and women around the world.”
The miners said it felt like an earthquake when the shaft caved in above them on Aug. 5, 2010, filling the lower ridges of the copper and gold mine with suffocating dust. Hours passed before they could even begin to see a few steps in front of them. Above them tonnes of rock shifted constantly, threatening to bury them forever.
People on the surface didn’t know for more than two weeks that the men had survived the collapse, and the 33 stretched a meager 48-hour store of emergency food for 17 days, eating tiny capsules of tuna and sips of expired milk. A narrow shaft finally reached their haven and the world learned they were alive.
That shaft allowed food and water to reach the men while rescuers drilled a bigger escape hole. Finally, in a flawless operation that ended in the early hours of Oct. 13, the miners were hauled up one by one in a cage through 600m of rock.
Back on the surface they were received as heroes for surviving so long in the sweltering, dark depths of the overexploited century-old mine. Their globally televised rescue mesmerized millions worldwide. They got paid trips to the Greek islands, visited the Real Madrid stadium in Spain and paraded at Magic Kingdom in Disney World.
However, the fantasy began to crumble on their return home. Many ran out of money and had to scratch out a living in the dusty, barren working-class neighborhoods and shantytowns of the desert city of Copiapo. Some began suffering from health and psychological problems. Others took to alcohol and drugs. Most are still kept up at night by memories of their ordeal.
“I still suffer from the nightmares,” said Alex Vega, 33, who vowed never to walk into a mine again.
“I’m on psychiatric treatment because I haven’t been able to overcome all of it,” said Vega, who has traveled to Central America and the US giving inspirational talks and works operating construction machinery.
Vega receives a pension of US$200 a month to compensate for his psychological problems.
However, doctors say the aftermath could have been worse.
“I still see them as great people who were able to go through something terrible,” said Alberto Iturra Benavides, the head psychologist who worked with the miners.
“What surprises me most is the strength of their commitment to life. They could have had deep personality alterations, but it hasn’t happened. People can’t even begin to understand how terrible it was for them down there,” he added.
Chile announced last year that 14 of the miners who are older than 50 or suffer from health problems that keep them from working would receive a lifetime pension of US$540 a month. The miners have been secretive about the details of what happened during their entrapment, especially the days before they were found, hoping to strike gold in a film deal.