A decade on: remembering the Chilean miners' rescue

A cave-in at the San Jose coper-gold mine trapped 33 men underground for 69 days but all survived

October 13 marks 10 years since 33 Chilean miners were pulled to the surface after a cave-in at the San Jose coper-gold mine left them trapped underground for 69 days. Millions of people worldwide tuned in to watch the rescue via video stream as the men were slowly winched to the surface, where their desperate families, accompanied by Chilean President Pinera and the first lady, Cecilia Morel were waiting to greet them.

A decade on, pictures of the dramatic rescue that involved almost every Chilean government ministry and the NASA space agency – costing US$20 million – are a vivid reminder of the miners’ ordeal during the longest underground entrapment in history.

Stuck 700 feet below the surface, five kilometres from the entrance, the men initially took refuge in an emergency shelter, but poor ventilation in the hot, humid environment forced them to move into a tunnel. Meagre emergency supplies of tinned fish provided enough food for a few days, but the men rationed them over two weeks, running out just as they were discovered.

On August 22, 17 days after the mine caved in, the miners attached a note to a probe lowered down by authorities saying, "We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us." But testimony from survivors hinted a darker ordeal.

"All 33 trapped miners, practicing a one-man, one-vote democracy worked together to maintain the mine, look for escape routes and keep up morale. We knew that if society broke down we would all be doomed. Each day a different person took a bad turn. Every time that happened, we worked as a team to try to keep the morale up," miner Mario Sepulveda said after leaving hospital.

All of the men, he added, took an oath of silence to conceal certain details of their experiences underground, especially during the first few weeks as despair set in before contact was established with rescue teams.

Miraculously, all men emerged from the mine in reasonable health and subsequently contributed to a book by prize-winning writer Hector Tobar and a film directed by Patricia Riggen chronicling their ordeal.