Thirty-Three Men The Media Circus at Chile's San José Mine

The effort to rescue 33 trapped miners in Copiapó, Chile, has become a national mission. German technology may ultimately help save the men. But in the meantime, the journalists from around the world who have gathered in the mining camps have little to do.

Héctor Ticona is 58 and looks like an ill-tempered prizefighter. He looks over at the huts at the entrance to the mine as if he would like to smash them to pieces. Behind him, a Chilean flag is flying on a pole someone jammed into the gravel. A woman walks by and says: "The cardinal has announced that he'll be coming soon. He wants to comfort the families. There's going to be a service." Ticona scratches his head. "Okay, a cardinal too," he mumbles. "Sure, whatever."

He has worked in gold and copper mines since he was a boy. He has nothing against cardinals. It's just that a cardinal isn't what he needs at the moment. Nor does he need people like the health minister, who was standing around giving interviews here recently. And he certainly doesn't need the two evangelical nuisances in pinstriped suits who were just here. They handed out small Bibles and said: "God is only testing your faith, Ticona."

In fact the only person Ticona wants to see at the moment in the northern Chilean mining town of Copiapó is his son, Ariel.

33 Symbols

Ariel Ticona is one of the 33 trapped miners that have been waiting to be rescued from a depth of 688 meters (2,257 feet) in the San José mine, which is part of the larger San Esteban gold and copper mine, since Aug. 5. Almost four weeks have passed, four weeks Héctor Ticona has spent staring at the entrance to the mine. He's had enough.

Rescuing these men has become a national project. When he learned about the accident, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera interrupted a visit to Colombia and said that the government would do everything humanly possible to rescue the miners. When it was discovered, on Aug. 22, that the miners are still alive, the mood was euphoric. People celebrated on the same town squares where only a few weeks earlier they had cheered on the Chilean football team during the World Cup in South Africa.

The 33 miners, men who risk their lives every day to earn about €600 ($762) a month, had become heroes -- symbols of perseverence. In February an earthquake, the fifth-most powerful in Chilean history, claimed 500 lives. The quake directly affected two million Chileans, and half a million houses and apartments were partially or completely destroyed. If these men could survive for 17 days in a mine, at temperatures of about 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and unbearable humidity, with only a few cans of tuna fish, crackers and the belief that someone would rescue them, then Chile would also endure. That, at least, was the message President Piñera sought to convey to the country.

Piñera, the first conservative politician in power since the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, owns a private television station and prefers to keep his message simple and straightforward. This will probably describe his tone on Sept. 18, when Chile celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence from Spain, a perfect occasion. Everyone will be listening.

Equipment from Germany

Ticona turns away and walks to the food tent. He needs a cup of tea. In recent weeks, an entire tent city has taken shape around the entrance to the mine, which has become a temporary home for the families of the miners. The town of Copiapó is providing food free of charge. The TV stations' broadcasting vans are parked next to the tents, their generators droning all day long. More than 200 journalists are accredited. There are also photographers and cameramen on the scene, but there is little in the way of new information to report.

A machine called a Strata 950, from Australia, has begun operating. The drill head and a drive motor are from Germany. The rescue plan calls for drilling a hole, 66 centimeters (about 2'2'") wide, into the rock through which the miners are to be pulled out. The work is expected to take about four months, and the chief engineer has indicated that he could be finished by the end of October. There is plenty of speculation over whether the work might be completed even more quickly.

Ticona walks past a white pickup truck, the vehicle that brings food for the 33 miners. At first, they were only given liquid food in bags, which were lowered through the narrow supply shaft, because doctors wanted to accustom them gradually to solid food. When the photographers and cameramen realized that the miners' food was on the pickup truck, they rushed over to the vehicle's loading ramp, where 50 cameras captured images of 33 packages of meatballs and rice that would end up on the evening news on Chilean television. The story could have been called, "Heroes eat meatballs."

Ticona is now drinking his tea in the cafeteria tent, where he sits in front of an improvised altar containing a statue of San Lorenzo, the patron saint of miners.

"No, you can't see Ariel on the video," says Ticona, just as four others aren't visible. A few days ago, a video camera was sent down to the trapped miners through one of the narrow supply tubes. The idea was that they would record themselves so that the world outside can see that they are doing well. Before that, the miners were only able to send letters. The video has since been aired around the world.

Questions About the Mine

It seems as if Ariel is resisting the party, something his father can understand. Several bands performed in front of the mine entrance over the weekend. Today, at noon, a folk group is scheduled to sing 33 songs. The musicians have just set up four enormous speakers.

Most of the men are heavy smokers, says Ticona, but all they have now is nicotine chewing gum. It's hot and damp, and there are no doctors to examine them properly. They are unable to eat their fill because they have to remain thin enough to fit through the narrow hole being drilled with the Strata 950. To make matters worse, a magnitude 4.7 earthquake hit the region a few days ago.

What is the point of this circus?

"My son came home every day and said that something wasn't right with the mine." Ticona wasn't surprised. San José had long had a bad reputation. The owners were forced to pay higher wages to attract miners. Ariel, who will be a father soon, worked at the mine for the higher pay.

The Family Business

Ariel was 10 when his father took him to work in the mine for the first time. Both father and son have already spent years working in mines without rescue shafts, and without protective clothing. Many members of Ticona's family have died of silicosis, a lung disease caused by quartz dust. They are no cowards, but this was a mine that had them worried. "It's perforated everywhere," says Ticona, "and they were having too many accidents recently."

Three miners died in recent years, and about eight weeks ago a young man lost one of his legs in a landslide. The mine was closed for a short time after the accident, but the owners managed to regain their operating license. Now they have apparently publicly admitted that there was no rescue shaft in the mine.

The 'Dahlbusch Bomb'

Ticona isn't alone in his assessment that something isn't right with the mine. German experts also worry that the layers of rock under the mine are unstable. The situation was aggravated by careless exploitation of the mine.

In addition to the drill head and the drive motor, a German invention from the 1950s could also be used in Copiapó in the coming weeks: a rescue device known as the Dahlbusch bomb.

It was invented in May 1955 during a similarly acute emergency situation like the one in the Chilean mine today. Three miners were trapped at a depth of 855 meters in the Dahlbusch mine in Gelsenkirchen, in western Germany's industrial Ruhr region. No devices existed that could be used to rescue the men, prompting an engineer to scribble an improvised solution onto a piece of scrap paper: a cylindrical capsule that resembled an old bomb, made of very thin sheet steel, 2.5 meters (about 8 feet) long and with a diameter of 38.5 centimeters (about 15 inches), which could be attached to a cable and lowered into the mine. The miners strapped themselves inside the capsule, which had an opening on one side, extending their arms upward into the closed top portion. After five days, the three trapped miners were pulled out of the mine, one at a time.

Since then, the rescue capsule has been used again and again in mines around the world. It was last used in Germany in 1963, when 11 miners were rescued after an accident in the Lengede mine near Salzgitter in central Germany. The German Engineering Federation has offered the device to the state-owned Chilean mining corporation.

According to the German experts, the biggest challenge will be to stabilize the 700-meter rescue shaft to prevent the capsule from getting stuck. "If you're in hard rock, you can drill down as far as two kilometers and your shaft will remain intact," says Wolfgang Rohel, a mine rescue expert from Clausthal-Zellerfeld in north-central Germany, who will accompany the Dahlbush bomb from Lengede to Chile.


Héctor Ticona doesn't know about the German mining experts' offer. His daughter-in-law is helping him write a note to his son. Yesterday he was allowed to speak with Ariel on the telephone for 30 seconds.

Ariel told his father that he was doing well down there. Good, the father replied.

Then there was silence. The men aren't big talkers. Ariel told his father that there was one thing he wanted to say, something he'd been thinking about. He wanted his pregnant wife to name their daughter Esperanza, or Hope.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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