Rescue Effort Under Way For Trapped Miners In Chile

Thirty-three miners found alive 17 days after a cave-in at a mine miles underground face the likelihood of staying there for several months as rescue operations are under way. Air is coming in through ventilation shafts, and engineers are sending them nutrition and medicine via plastic tubes.

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Rich copper reserves helped Chile get through the global recession. The country is an important supplier of copper and other metals used for manufacturing all manner of cables and electronics.

And Chile relies heavily on the miners who dig it all up, like the 33 men trapped underground for 19 days near the city of Copiapo. Reporter Annie Murphy has the story.

ANNIE MURPHY: Lilian Ramirez is used to waiting. When her husband took a break from mining to work as a sailor back in the '70s, she waited three years to see him. But it didn't compare to the waiting she's done since August 5th, when her husband and 32 other miners were trapped nearly half a mile underground following a cave-in at the San Jose mine.

The miners were located alive and surprisingly well on Sunday, and through his letters, Lilian's husband, Mario Gomez, emerged as a leader among the trapped miners. Up above, Lilian has become something of a spokesperson for the families camped out in the desert surrounded by rocks, dunes and a cloudless blue sky.

Lilian is drinking hot tea in a makeshift mess tent. She has unruly ginger-colored hair and is so tired her eyelids occasionally flutter shut.

Ms. LILIAN RAMIREZ: (Through translator) Part of being a miner is risking everything. A miner is rough because he works in terrifying conditions. He knows that he's taking huge risks, but to support his family, he exposes himself completely. It's hard to be married to a miner, but a miner's wife needs to be there as support.

MURPHY: Social worker Pamela Leiva(ph) has been helping people in the camp. She says the miners' families may actually have more psychological resources when it comes to this sort of trauma.

Ms. PAMELA LEIVA (Social Worker): (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: She says these families know the mines, and they probably have more mental resistance because of it. If it were someone else, like us, she says, things would be very different.

Leiva says now the hardest part won't be counseling the families but the miners themselves, who could be underground for up to four months while the delicate process of drilling a rescue shaft is carried out. So far, none of the men know it could take that long.

Police Captain Alonso Quezada(ph) has been working here since the accident. Standing near a cooking fire, he says San Jose should've been built with an escape route

Captain ALONSO QUEZADA (Policeman): (Speaking foreign language).

MURPHY: By law, a mine has to have various exits, he says, and this mine does not.

According to the families of the trapped miners, as well as miners who weren't in the cave-in, those who took jobs at San Jose did so because they could make a little extra money in exchange for taking bigger risks.

No one could foresee the magnitude of the cave-in that left these 33 miners trapped underground, but many workers, like Lilian's husband Mario, were sure a bigger accident was bound to happen.

Ms. RAMIREZ: (Through translator) My husband said to his boss many times: This place is falling down bit by bit. Someday, we're all going to end up buried here. No one knows what destiny will give you, but we also have to make things right. This cannot happen. These businesses have human beings working for them, not animals.

MURPHY: It will be months before these miners see sunlight again. Till then, they're trapped in a hot, damp space the size of a one-bedroom apartment while their loved ones remain camped in the desert waiting for the men who are buried far beneath their feet.

For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy, Copiapo, Chile.

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