As Chile Celebrates, Mine's Future in Question

Associated Press + More

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — Chileans reveled Thursday in the stunning glory and jubilation of a record-setting mine rescue. As the celebration fades, however, several key questions await resolution.

Officials at the copper and gold mine whose collapse trapped the 33 men for more than two months still have to answer why it was allowed to operate at all.

Attention will also focus in coming days on the rescued miners themselves, their emotional scars must be tended — and, eventually, it remains to be seen how many will want to return the underground profession that nearly killed them.

[See a photo gallery of the Chilean miner rescue.]

President Sebastian Pinera seemed unequivocal after Wednesday's rescue about the fate of the San Jose mine.

"This mine will definitely never open again," he said after a dizzying day in which the miners were pulled up through a narrow escape chute from nearly a half-mile down in under 23 hours — far less than originally forecast.

Pinera also said the conditions that allowed the accident "will not go unpunished. Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility."

Pinera said the rescue would end up costing "somewhere between $10 (million) and $20 million," a third covered by private donations with the rest coming from state-owned miner Codelco — the country's largest company— and the government itself.

Mining accounts for 40 percent of the Chilean state's earnings and the rescue's details were run by its operations manager, Andre Sougarett.

The Aug. 5 collapse brought the 125-year-old San Jose mine's checkered safety record into focus and put Chile's top industry under close scrutiny. Many believe the collapse occurred because the mine was overworked and violated safety codes.

The families of 27 of the 33 rescued miners have sued its owners for negligence and compensatory damages.

Also suing the San Esteban company is Gino Cortez, a 40-year-old miner who lost his left leg from the knee down a month before the accident as he was leaving the mine after his shift and a rock fell on him. He contends he was hurt because the mine was short on the metallic screens that protect miners from such collapses.

Pinera said he would soon offer a proposal to better protect Chilean workers.

After the collapse, he fired top regulators and created a commission to investigate both the accident and the industry's Sernageomin regulatory agency. Some action was swift: the agency shut down at least 18 small mines for safety violations.

"The mine has been proven dangerous, but what's worse are the mine owners who don't offer any protection to men who work in mining," said Patricio Aguilar, 60, of nearby Copiapo, during celebrations of the meticulously executed rescue.

Advances in technology notwithstanding, mining remains a dangerous profession in the smaller mines here in northern Chile, which employ about 10,000 people.

Since 2000, about 34 people have died every year on average in mining accidents in Chile — with a high of 43 in 2008, according to Sernageomin data.

Most of the rescued miners live in Copiapo, a gritty, blue-collar city surrounded by the Acatama desert. Copiapo's central plaza was jammed with thousands of revelers watching the operation on a giant screen as street vendors hawked Chilean flags bearing the faces of "Los 33."

The last miner, shift foreman Luis Urzua, emerged from the Phoenix rescue capsule after the 2,041-foot ascent to a joyous celebration. Pinera, eyes moist with emotion, told him: "You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration."

No one is known to have survived as long trapped underground. For the first 17 days, no one even knew whether the men were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was captivated by their endurance and unity.

With hardhats held to their hearts, the pair led the rescue team in singing the national anthem. Broadcast by state TV, it seemed ubiquitous in small country of 16 million roiling with pride.

"Chile today is more united and stronger than ever and I think that Chile is today a country more respected and more esteemed by the world," Pinera said after chatting with Urzua on live TV about how the men endured.