Five years on, it′s still the pits for Chilean miners | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 12.10.2015
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Five years on, it's still the pits for Chilean miners

Five years ago, the world watched as 33 Chilean miners emerged from the San Jose Mine after 69 days trapped underground. Jane Chambers reports from Chile on how they are faring today.

On August 5, 2010, part of the mine collapsed leaving the men stranded 700 meters (2,300 feet) underground, in 40-degree humidity, with hardly any food or clean water.

Then President Sebastian Pinera was advised not to get involved as people thought there was no way they would be found alive. But he was determined to help the families who had gathered at the mine. When DW visited him at his offices in Santiago, he said: "I went to see my father-in-law who was very ill, and the last thing he said to me before he died was, 'Sebastian, you have to carry on looking. I know the miners are alive.'"

Sebastian Pinera Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Pinera was under pressure to get the situation under control

The next day, the now-famous message came up to the surface tied to the end of the drill: "We are well in the shelter, all 33 of us."

One of the older miners, Omar Reygadas, told DW that "it was becoming very difficult for us. We were discovered 17 days after the accident. We had very little food and we were surviving on one teaspoon of tinned tuna each, every 72 hours. The only water we had was the dirty and oily water which was normally used to clean the mining machinery."

The race was on to get them out alive and experts were brought in from all over the world to work out the best way to drill down to them. In the meantime, emergency supplies and fresh water were sent through a borehole and teams of doctors and psychologists were brought in to look after the 33 men.

Great expectations

When the miners finally came up to safety in the Phoenix Capsule, many people - including the miners - thought they would be rich overnight and never have to work again. There were promises of work and they were given around $15,000 each by a wealthy Chilean business man.

In the first year they enjoyed all expenses paid trips to places like Disneyland, Manchester United and Greece. But since then life has been difficult. Initially only the 14 oldest miners were given a pension. Now they all have one, but they say it isn't enough to live on. The job offers and sponsorship money never materialized.

"It's been very hard for us to find work," said one of the younger miners, Carlos Barrios, who negotiated the pension with the government. "Out of the 33 of us, only around 10 have full-time jobs. Some of us are too old, and many of us don't have the skills to find work in other areas."

Health problems are another issue. "Two years after the accident I started to get panic attacks and was not able to sleep," Carlos told DW. "I find it hard to concentrate and remember things. I've been signed off work and have to see a psychologist every month in Santiago."

Omar Reygadas admitted that the accident had changed him. "I used to love to get together with my children and grandchildren at the weekend for a barbecue. Now I prefer to be alone. When I was down the mine I treated it like being at work on a very long shift. It was only when I came out that I realized how different life would be."

Hardships remain

"The accident made us instant celebrities and that counts against us," he said. "I'm too old to go back to mining. But other miners who want to get work find it hard. We have contacts with the press and people in government. So if we're working for a mining company, and we see things aren't being done properly, we know who to call. Companies don't like that and they are scared to give us work."

trapped miners copyright: Photo: EPA/GOVERNMENT

Five years on, many of the miners are still suffering from health and psychological problems

Five years on, the privately owned San Jose gold and copper mine is now closed and only a small museum remains.

At the time of the accident Sebastian Pinera promised to improve safety conditions and double the number of mine inspectors and inspections.

Indeed, the number of accidents has fallen in recent years. But copper prices are much lower than they were in 2010, and experts agree that when prices are high more accidents happen because part-time, unsupervised miners, many with little experience, head to the desert looking for work. And mines that closed long ago reopen, often with no better safety standards than when they closed.

Although life is hard for the miners, a Hollywood movie has given them hope. The story of the accident, starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche, came out in August and the miners are due to get a cut of the ticket sales. They hope this will finally give them the financial security they crave.

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