How Did the Chilean Miners Survive?


The tragedy of the Chilean miners who were buried 2,300 feet underground for 69 days gripped the globe in 2010. As rescuers worked tirelessly to bring the miners to safety, the entire world held its breath. However, the actual heroes of this extraordinary narrative were the miners themselves, who managed to survive in the mine’s tough, tight conditions for over two months. Their extraordinary resilience, teamwork, and drive to survive in the face of overwhelming circumstances are a monument to the human spirit and have inspired people all across the world. In this post, we’ll look at the intriguing narrative of how Chilean miners survived and what we can learn from their incredible experience.

The 2010 Copiapó Mining Accident

The 2010 Copiapó mining accident, often known as the “Chilean mining accident,” took place on August 5, 2010. It happened at the San José copper-gold mine in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of the regional seat of Copiapó. A cave-in imprisoned 33 miners 700 meters (2,300 feet) down, roughly 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the mine’s entrance.

For 17 days, the miners were locked up in a small refuge, cut off from the outside world. Their position appeared terrible because they had no way of communicating with the outside world and had minimal food and water supplies. Despite these difficulties, the miners demonstrated incredible fortitude, working together to ration their supplies and develop a feeling of community in their cramped surroundings.

Mining in Chile

Chile is well-known for its abundant mineral resources, with copper being one of the most valuable. However, the country’s long mining tradition has come at a high cost. According to official regulatory data, an average of 34 persons have perished in mining accidents in Chile each year since 2000, with a high of 43 in 2008. The mine where the Chilean miners were trapped was run by the San Esteban Mining Company (CMSE), which has a reputation for operating dangerous mines. Between 2004 and 2010, the corporation was penalized 42 times for noncompliance with safety rules.

Despite CMSE’s reputation, the San Jose Mine reopened in 2008 despite regulatory violations. During the period preceding the most recent collapse, the mine had only three inspectors for the Atacama Region’s 884 mines due to funding restrictions. Warnings concerning dangerous working conditions at the mine were ignored before the accident. Workers had expressed their concerns about the dangers and risks, but the company’s management would not listen.

Despite the fact that Chilean copper mine workers are among the highest-paid in South America, significant events in large mines, particularly those operated by the state copper mining firm (Codelco) or multinational corporations, are uncommon. Smaller mines like the one in Copiapó have lesser safety regulations. Because of its poor safety record, wages at the San Jose Mine were roughly 20% more than at comparable Chilean mines. The disaster has brought into question mine safety in Chile, underlining the need for stricter rules and higher safety standards in the mining industry.

The San José mine in a satellite image

The Collapse that Trapped the Chilean Miners

The San José mine collapse was a sudden and disastrous catastrophe that imprisoned the 33 workers deep underground with no way out. The incident occurred on August 5, 2010, at 2:00 p.m. local time and was triggered by a massive rockfall, which formed a dense dust cloud, preventing the miners from seeing for many hours. One miner, who was driving an ore truck at the time of the fall, managed to flee and notify authorities of the accident.

The miners’ first attempts to escape down the ventilation tunnels were unsuccessful because the requisite ladders were missing. They were able to flee, however, to a room known as a “refuge” that was mainly meant to provide temporary sanctuary in the case of an emergency. The sanctuary had enough food, water, and medical supplies to last several days, but the miners realized they needed to be rescued as soon as possible if they were to survive.

The shift supervisor, Luis Urzúa, rapidly assumed command of the situation, arranging his men and their resources to maximize their prospects of survival. Teams were dispatched to assess the situation and collect data on the mine’s state, while others sought to establish communication with the outside world. Despite the disaster’s initial shock and bewilderment, the miners were able to keep their composure and work together to ensure their survival.

The Initial Search and the Second Collapse

Rescuers were unable to reach the trapped miners due to fallen rocks or continued rock movement, despite initial attempts to avoid the rockfall using other passageways. A second collapse on August 7 delayed the rescue effort even more, forcing rescuers to utilize heavy gear to gain entry through a ventilation shaft. However, fears that further attempts to pursue this route would cause further geological movement halted efforts to reach the trapped miners via previously existing shafts. As a result, exploratory boreholes were sunk to try to locate the miners.

Due to drilling depth and hard rock, some boreholes wandered off-target, complicating rescue efforts. Despite the difficulties, on August 19, one of the probes arrived at a location where the miners were thought to be trapped but found no signs of life.

On August 22, the eighth drill finally burst through at a depth of 688 meters near the miner’s shelter. The miners had been hearing drills for days and had prepared messages to attach to the tip of the drill with insulating tape when it poked into their chamber. They also tapped on the drill before withdrawing it, which could be heard on the surface.

When the exercise was finally called off, a message with the words “Estamos bien en el refugio los 33” was attached to it. The message means that all 33 miners are fine in the shelter. These words became the survival and rescue effort’s mantra, and they appeared on websites, banners, and T-shirts. The first blurry, black-and-white, silent photographs of the miners were captured hours later by video cameras sent down the borehole.

The discovery of the note, as well as photographs of the trapped miners, elevated the morale of the miners’ families, rescuers, and people worldwide. The Chilean government, led by President Sebastián Piñera, swiftly mobilized a large rescue mission, bringing in professionals from all over the world to help.

First view of Chilean miners 2010

How the Miners Survived the Tragic Accident

From August 5 to October 13, 2010, the 33 miners were stranded underground for 69 days. During this time, they lived in the emergency shelter, which was originally supposed to be utilized for brief periods in the event of an emergency and was positioned around 700 meters (2,300 feet) underground. The refuge was in a tunnel beside a ramp leading to the surface.

To maintain their physical condition, the miners’ daily routine included sleeping on two long benches and completing light exercises. They had access to approximately 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of open tunnels, which they utilized to move around and gain privacy. However, ventilation issues forced them to leave the shelter and enter the tunnel in order to improve their air supply.

Food was scarce, and the men were forced to ration what little they had. The emergency supplies in the shelter were only meant to last two or three days, but the miners carefully rationed their supplies and made them last for two weeks, only running out shortly before they were discovered. They were able to survive by sharing food and water and eating modest amounts of tuna and peaches every two days.

Despite the challenging conditions, the miners worked as a team to maintain the mine, search for escape routes, and preserve morale. They practiced one-man, one-vote democracy, with each person having a say in group decisions. When one of the miners became ill, the others rallied to his aid and kept his spirits high.

Foreman Luis Urzúa was instrumental in keeping the trapped miners focused and motivated during their experience. Urzúa, known for his calm demeanor and mild humor, was credited for keeping the miners’ spirits up and his determination to survive. Urzúa joked that it had been a “long shift” when he first made contact with officials on the surface but reassured them that they were “fine, waiting for you to rescue us.”

The Rescue Operation

The first four men taken up were the “fittest of body and mind” to help tell the rescue team about conditions on the trek and report on the remaining miners. The miners were given a liquid diet high in carbohydrates, minerals, and potassium and were required to wear a girdle to keep their blood pressure stable. 

They were also given moisture-resistant coveralls and sunglasses to protect them from the harsh sunlight. Oxygen masks, heart monitors, and video cameras were all included in the capsule. After strapping a miner into the capsule, it climbed at a rate of around 1 meter per second, taking 9 to 18 minutes to reach the surface. Upon arrival, none of the miners required emergency medical attention.

Originally, two rescue workers were to descend down the mine before bringing the first miner to the surface. To minimize any delay, rescuers opted to transport a miner to the surface in the same capsule that had carried González down. Each passage of the capsule was expected to take 15 minutes, giving the rescue operation a total period of 33 hours. As the 18th miner was brought to the surface, Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne stated that the entire operation could be completed by that night.

After stepping free from the rescuers and greeting his son, the last miner to be extracted, Urzúa embraced Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and said, “I’ve delivered to you this shift of workers, as we agreed I would,” to which the president replied, “You are not the same after this, and Chile will not be the same either.” When all of the miners were extracted, the rescuers in the mine chamber displayed a banner that read “Misión cumplida Chile” (“Mission accomplished Chile”). The Fénix 2 capsule conducted 39 round journeys, covering a distance of nearly 50 kilometers.

Tube used to deliver supplies to the trapped miners

The 33: A Film Based on the Tragedy

The movie “The 33” is based on the events of the 2010 Copiapó mining disaster, commonly known as the Chilean mining disaster. The film is directed by Mexican director Patricia Riggen and written by Mikko Alanne and Jose Rivera. “Apocalypse Now” producer Mike Medavoy collaborated with the miners, their families, and those engaged in creating the film.

The plot of the film is primarily concerned with the tragedy and its aftermath, during which time rescue teams strive to save the trapped miners over a period of three months. The film illustrates the miners’ horrific conditions, which included malnutrition, dehydration, and psychological anguish. It also highlights the rescuers’ painstaking attempts to get the miners to safety.

Theatrical release poster of The 33

All in all, the Chilean miners’ remarkable survival was an extraordinary accomplishment of human endurance, tenacity, and inventiveness. It demonstrated the strength of hope, faith, and determination in the face of great hardship. The story of the miners’ survival and eventual rescue will inspire future generations, reminding us of the human spirit’s extraordinary ability to prevail over even the most horrible conditions. 

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