Sunday 15 December 2019

Crucial strokes of good luck conspired to keep men alive

THEY may not take kindly to being called fortunate, given the fear and discomfort they endured throughout an incarceration that lasted almost 70 days.

But from the moment they were trapped underground, the men who have now started to emerge from the San Jose mine benefited from crucial strokes of good luck.

The rock fall that trapped them struck at noon, when the men were having lunch in a reinforced rescue shelter 700 metres from the surface. At any other time, during a normal working day, they would have been spread throughout four miles of tunnels, meaning many would have been instantly killed.

When the dust settled, it emerged that the miners had access to a kilometre of what seemed to be stable areas of the mine. That section contained several vehicles, whose batteries they used to power torches. One truck also contained a small supply of bottled drinking water.

Their next piece of good luck involved the type of mine they worked in. Copper mines (in which gold is produced as a by-product) are inherently safer than coal ones, which emit potentially deadly methane. So although ventilation shafts had been blocked during the accident, the men knew that the only way the remaining oxygen was going to be used up was by their breathing it. In other words, time was on their side.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, the miners had a small quantity of emergency food in the corner of their rescue shelter. They also had leftovers from the lunches they had brought down at the start of their 12-hour shift.

Realising straightaway that the sheer depth at which they were trapped meant it could be days, or even weeks, until they were located by rescuers, the men embarked on a rationing system. They would eat just two teaspoons of canned tuna and a biscuit every 48 hours. Each of these 'meals' was to be washed down with two sips of milk.


It was hot in their underground prison, about 30C, but they were able to avoid serious dehydration by supplementing their bottled water through digging a makeshift canal in the floor. By way of a potential last resort, they also drained the radiators in their machinery.

No one yet fully understands the mood in the mine during the ensuing 17 days. A second rock fall, on August 7, closed off a further 100 yards, presumably adding to the sense of foreboding. There is believed to have been bickering over the rationing system, which some deemed too rigorous. But in subsequent letters, 'Los 33' say they've vowed never to publicly discuss any of the tensions.

It seems likely, though, that in the stressful conditions, leaders emerged. One such man was Luis Urzua, a 54-year-old topographer. The eldest son from a large Catholic family without a father, he was a natural authority figure.

Playing to the machismo of his colleagues -- tough men in a hard profession -- Mr Urzua is believed to have decided that they had a straightforward choice: perish separately, or work together to give themselves the best possible chance of survival.

Mr Urzua instigated a system under which none of the 33 men could begin eating their tiny meals until all of them had received food. He organised them into three groups, who would venture out, in shifts, to search for signs of any approaching rescue. If nothing else, adding structure to their existence would help pass time.

Other aspects of daily life soon began to fall into place. They would shower each morning under a natural waterfall 300m up the tunnel, using supplies of shampoo to clean off the orange-coloured mud that found its way almost everywhere.

The more religious men -- at least two "found God" during their ordeal -- would take part in a daily prayer organised by Jose Henriquez. Others would listen to uplifting poems written by Victor Zamora, the group's in-house poet. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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