The Chilean 33: Escaping the Depths

Workers testing a rescue capsule | By Hugo Infante/Government of Chile | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Can you imagine being trapped in a mine for more than two months, not knowing whether you would get rescued, or even if someone was searching for you? Well, in 2010, thirty-three miners were trapped after a collapse in the San Jose Mine in northern Chile. This terrifying accident led to one of the most famous rescues in history, involving a collaboration of people from around the globe.

The fateful collapse occurred on Thursday, August 5, 2010. This day immediately became part of Chilean history, and it led to one of the most emotional stories in recent times. A few hours after the mine collapsed, both the government and the media let the world know about the tragedy. At that time, they didn’t know the cause of the accident, and they certainly didn’t know whether there were any survivors. However, the search and rescue efforts began immediately.1

Over the next few days, rescuers tried to analyze the situation to the best of their abilities and started searching for survivors. Things didn’t look good, and things got even worse when there was a second collapse in the ventilation duct, which was being evaluated as a possible escape route for any survivors. The next few days were used by the rescuers to drill exploratory holes; these holes were used to send listening probes down the mine to search for any signs of life. And, after two weeks of unsuccessful attempts, they finally found what they were searching for: survivors.2

On Sunday, August 22, it was confirmed by the government of Chile that the thirty-three miners were alive and in one of the mine’s shelters. How did they find out that they were alive? The miners reported their survival using knocks and a small piece of paper that said: “All 33 of us are fine in the shelter.”3 This single sentence gave the nation and the entire world hope, since it confirmed something that very few thought to be possible. Two days later, a hole was drilled and food and water was sent to the brave survivors. At this moment, rescuers started focusing on the true challenge of this story: getting the miners out safely.4 

Workers in the rescue zone | By Hugo Infante/Government of Chile | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
As it is to be expected, mining is a high-risk industry. However, it is a big economic resource for many countries, including Chile. This country is very active in mining and exporting metals. When it comes to copper, it is the world’s largest producer and exporter.5 The San Jose Mine, where the collapse occurred, is one of the many copper-gold mines in the country. Business Insider recently reported that Chile “has been the world’s top copper producer now for over 30 years, and today close to 50% of the country’s exports come from copper-related products.”6 This dominance over the market is due to Chile’s obvious natural resources, but also thanks to advanced mining technology.

Mining in Chile started to produce considerably in the 1990s. It was around that time that it lead to one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Nowadays, it continues its dominance and keeps evolving. Codelco, Chile’s National Copper Corporation, is the biggest copper-producing company in the world.7 And, despite the successful outcomes in the past decades, mining companies (like Codelco) continue to explore other mining opportunities in Chile. Another important factor that has contributed to this industry’s success is that the mining laws created by the government of Chile are investment friendly, which means that foreign investment is facilitated. In their efforts to continue to build their international relationships, Chile also has been pushing to engage economically with the Asia-Pacific region.8

Finding the thirty-three miners alive and well was a miracle. But it seemed that they would need a second miracle in order to get out. And this miracle was achieved thanks to people from around the world collaborating and sharing resources to make sure that the miners were rescued, and that they stayed healthy while they were still trapped. It is important to remember that the miners had to stay down there a long time, and they had almost no food and water until they were found. That is why two teams were created: one in charge of taking care of the miners, and one in charge of drilling the rescue shaft that would get them out. In order to take care of the miners, many organizations worked together to maintain their health. A support group from the Navy of Chile was asked to participate, since the conditions the miners were in were very similar to being trapped inside a submarine. They were asked to create a routine to help them with the seclusion and they continued to send them medical supplies and instructions. Their goal was to take care of their physical and mental state.9

Another great example of how the world united to save the miners is NASA’s contribution. NASA built a team that gave recommendations on medical care, nutrition, and psychological support. They even gave a possible design for a vehicle that could be used for the rescue operation. NASA’s nutritionists and doctors traveled to Chile and recommended things like vitamin supplements, sleep schedules, and exercise for the miners. They also sent psychologists that recommended little access to the media and constant communication with the families. Finally, NASA engineers also helped with the capsule that eventually got the miners out.10

Workers preparing the platform for the crane | By Hugo Infante/Government of Chile | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After making sure that the miners were healthy enough to survive inside the mine for a while, the rescue plans began. Rescuers didn’t have to analyze much to conclude that they needed to drill a hole to get the job done. A lot of high-tech equipment was needed, including drilling equipment and a rescue capsule. Initially, rescuers prognosticated that they would free the thirty-three miners by November 2010. However, the hole was finished ahead of schedule and the last miner was out by October 13.11

In their efforts to get everyone out as efficiently as possible, rescuers decided to use three major drill machines: the STRATA 950 (Plan A), the T-130 (Plan B), and the petrol drilling machine RIG 421 (Plan C).12 The three drills were put to work, and the T-130 (Plan B) turned out to be the winner. Nevertheless, using the T-130 had many complications. For example, on September 22, one of the drill heads snapped and fell into the floor of the mine. However, the plan continued; and on October 6, the miners could hear the machine drilling over their heads. Three days later, the drill reached its goal.13

Mining in Chile has had its fair share of accidents. And, despite this accident, not much has been done to make sure that the Chilean workers are safe. Speaking about the San Jose mine, it was reported that it lacked many safety features that would have prevented the disaster that kept the thirty-three miners underground for so long. Given that mining is in such demand in Chile, many small-sized companies got into the industry without having the resources to ensure their workers’ safety. Even the refuge where the thirty-three miners survived didn’t have the necessary conditions to shelter them. It had no ventilation and the energy was cut off. Also, three deaths had occurred in the mine in previous years and many workers had been injured. Due to lack of security, the company owners had been involved in multiple lawsuits, including several from the thirty-three miners. It was later revealed that they had many infractions due to unsafe working conditions.14 Was this all San Esteban Mining Company’s fault? The public certainly thought so.

Moreover, the San Jose Mine isn’t the only mine that has had incidents in this country. In 1945, the world’s largest mining tragedy in the history of metal mining occurred in Chile. This horrendous accident was caused by an explosion and took the life of 355 workers. As could be expected, it exposed how unsafe the working environment in mines were; and it eventually led to the creation of the Department of Mine Safety, a department that introduced risk prevention and safety management to the industry.15

Even though Chile now has very strict safety standards, enforcement is still an issue. Accidents like the 1945 tragedy, the 2006 Copiapo accident, and the 2010 incident often occur because small and medium-sized mines don’t have the money to provide the necessary safety standards for their workers. Since the workforce needs jobs to make a living, many are forced to go into the mines and risk their lives everyday.

According to The Balance, the most common causes of mining accidents are methane explosions and blasting related incidents. Methane is found within the coal layers of most of the mines. Malfunction of mining equipment, or the lack of preparation to use it, can trigger this methane and initiate coal dust explosions. Explosions of this nature have trapped and killed many miners in history. Also, the improper use of explosives to break rocks inside the mines has caused several accidents. Unprepared workers often don’t know how to operate these explosives and they don’t even know how far they should stand at the moment of the explosion. These underground explosions can also cause earthquake-like events that lead to cave-ins. Consequently, it is safe to say that mining companies should not only make sure that their equipment is in good condition, but they should also invest in proper training for their workers.16

After 69 days of terror and hard work, the big day finally came. The last preparations for the rescue operation were being made and the miners were ready to be pulled out. They even helped out by blowing up the last part of the hole with dynamite. And while they were getting ready to go into the rescue capsule and see their families, the entire world was watching. After hearing the final review of the escape protocol, rescuer Manuel Gonzalez climbed into the Phoenix capsule and went down into the mine.17

Chilean president Sebastian Piñera with last miner rescued | By Hugo Infante/Government of Chile | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At 11:37 pm, the Phoenix capsule finished descending and was received by the excited survivors. Florencio Avalos, the first miner to get rescued, got into the capsule and prepared to leave that nightmare behind. As he was pulled from the rescue capsule, his family, the rescuers, the whole nation of Chile, and the entire world celebrated. Despite a few issues with the cameras and a minor collapse during the extraction process, 24 hours later the “33 miners” were out of the mine and reunited with their families. Both the group of miners and the rescuers were received with chants and excitement. The catastrophe was over and one of the most amazing rescues in modern history concluded.18

The aftermath of the disaster was as expected. The miners were taken straight to the hospital, where they were treated for malnutrition and respiratory issues. Nonetheless, the doctors were amazed when they saw how healthy “The 33” were. They were visited by President Piñeda, who promised to make sure that the security measures in mines were going to be improved. Four days later, most of the miners were out of the hospital and back with their families for good. Even though they were physically okay, the psychological damage the disaster left was severe. The government of Chile continued to take care of the workers months after the disaster.19

This incredible story showed the best side of humanity. People from all over the world collaborated with money, machinery, knowledge, and time to make sure that those miners got to see the light of day again. The rescue was viewed by millions and “The 33” received love and support from every corner of the Earth. Even though the story had a happy ending, this was a very serious accident and it exposed how unsafe mining can be in Chile and around the world. There had been many other accidents in history with several fatalities. Thankfully, this particular disaster was resolved thanks to the hard work of thousands of individuals. This action of unity should never be forgotten.

  1. Roberto Ríos Seguel, Chile 33 : Memoirs a Rescuer (Santiago de Chile: RIL editores, 2012), 17.
  2. Live Science, August 2010, s.v. “Chile Mine Collapse: Facts About the Amazing Survival Story,” by Wynne Parry and Rachael Rettner.
  3. Roberto Ríos Seguel, Chile 33 : Memoirs a Rescuer (Santiago de Chile: RIL editores, 2012), 18.
  4. Roberto Ríos Seguel, Chile 33 : Memoirs a Rescuer (Santiago de Chile: RIL editores, 2012), 18-19.
  5. Britannica, October 2018, s.v. “Chile: Mineral resources, noncarboniferous,” by Paul W. Drake César N. Caviedes, John J. Johnson and Marcello A. Carmagnani.
  6. Business Insider, June 2017, s.v. “Here’s how copper riches helped shape Chile’s economic story,” by  Jeff Desjardins.
  7. Virginia Economic Development Partnership, “Mining Markey in Chile,” International Trade, (2015): 1.
  8. Virginia Economic Development Partnership, “Mining Markey in Chile,” International Trade, (2015): 5.
  9. Roberto Ríos Seguel, Chile 33 : Memoirs a Rescuer (Santiago de Chile: RIL editores, 2012), 19-20.
  10. Gary Jordan, “How NASA Helped ‘The 33’ Chilean Miners,” NASA.gov, (November 2015): 1.
  11. Barbara Fraser, “Chilean Miners See the Light at Last,” Lancet 376, 9750 (October 2010): 1379–1380.
  12. Roberto Ríos Seguel, Chile 33 : Memoirs a Rescuer (Santiago de Chile: RIL editores, 2012), 19.
  13. Jonathan Franklin, 33 Men: Inside the Miraculous Survival and Dramatic Rescue of the Chilean Miners (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011), Chap 11.
  14. Pascale Bonnefoy, “Poor safety standards led to Chilean mine disaster,” PRI.org, (August 2010): 1.
  15. Igor Solar, “Chile: Two mining accidents with significantly different outcomes,” Digital Journal, (October 2014): 1.
  16. Philippe Dozolme, “What Are the Most Common Mining Accidents?,” Small Business, (April 2018): 1.
  17. Jonathan Franklin, 33 Men : Inside the Miraculous Survival and Dramatic Rescue of the Chilean Miners (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011), Chap 12.
  18. Jonathan Franklin, 33 Men: Inside the Miraculous Survival and Dramatic Rescue of the Chilean Miners (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011), Chap 13.
  19. Jonathan Franklin, 33 Men: Inside the Miraculous Survival and Dramatic Rescue of the Chilean Miners (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011), Chap 14.
Written By
More from Jose Fernandez

How Statistics Redefined Baseball

What if I told you that in 2002, baseball was revolutionized by...
Read More

18 Comments

  • This article is great. What an amazing story that was told in this article. Very moving. I learned a lot about this miraculous event that took place in my lifetime and is astonishing at the very least. I can’t believe that I had never heard of this before and am just reading about it. What a great job on your article I liked it a lot.

  • This article was very well written! The strength of this article I believe lies in the attention to detail that the author imbues into the article. I remember following this story with great interest back when it was all over the news, as well as consuming any iota of information that I could find regarding this, as it was a very suspenseful ordeal.

  • Wow, I am amazed especially since it is something astounding that happened in my lifetime that I did not know about. I love reading about things that happened when I was a child because I did not read the news then, and it helps me to learn about something new that happened in my lifetime. It is amazing how the world came together and was able to save all 33 of the miners.

  • I remember when this event occurred, it was publicized worldwide and the main story on almost every television news outlet. It Is crazy to know that the survivors were sending messages to let others know they were alive. NASA’s contribution to providing resources and the capsule to potentially save the miners is incredible. Another fact that I thought was interesting was that they were stuck in there for two whole months before the last miner was safely rescued.

  • I remember hearing about this on the news when it first occurred. It is so amazing that they all got out alive and safe and were able to return to their families. It must have been heart breaking for them to not know what would happen to their loved ones while in the mine. I hope the proper steps were taken to prevent an accident like this again.

  • First off let just say that I am glad that they were able to escape. I remember seeing this all over the news and I being just a child knew that this was something serious. Like I said I am glad that they were saved but this did bring up the concern of work conditions in hard jobs such as mining. Something like this probably could have been prevented but it wasn’t so we should do something about it so that we don’t have this kind of problem again.

  • I remember this event very clearly. This terrifying moment for the thirty-three Chilean miners was everywhere in the news. I remembered that I turn on the TV, and the only thing that was being aired at that time was this tragic incident. I believe all miners, and everyone else that works in hard conditions, should be treated very-well. Many countries struggle to give men and women the same treatment and financial help, depending on the work field.

  • Nice article. It is so great that the thirty miners got out of the mine safely. That is really is quite extraordinary considering that many times when mining accidents occur there are at least some fatalities. I am glad that in this incident there were none. Still that does not mean that what happened should just be seen as a good thing. Clearly there was a lack of proper safety regulations. Many steps still have to be taken to ensure that miners are properly cared for. Chile and many other developing nations often struggle with that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.