The 2010 Copiapó mining accident began as a cave-in on 5 August 2010 at the San José copper-gold mine in the Atacama Desert near Copiapó, Chile. The accident left 33 men trapped 700 meters (2,300 ft) below ground who survived underground for a record 69 days. All 33 men were rescued and brought to the surface on 13 October 2010 over a period of almost 24 hours. After the last trapped miner was winched to the surface, the rescue workers still underground held up a sign before the camera stating “Misión cumplida Chile” (English: “Mission accomplished Chile”) to the estimated more than 1 billion people watching the rescue on live television around the world.
The San José Mine is about 45 kilometers (28 mi) north of Copiapó, in northern Chile. The miners were trapped approximately 5 kilometers (3 mi) from the mine entrance. The mine had a history of instability that had led to previous accidents, including one death.
The retrieval of the first miner, Florencio Ávalos, began on Tuesday, 12 October at 23:55 CLDT, with the rescue capsule reaching the surface 16 minutes later. Less than 24 hours later, at 21:55 CLDT on 13 October, all 33 miners had been rescued, almost all in good medical condition, and expected to recover fully. Two miners were suffering from silicosis, one of whom also had pneumonia, and others were suffering from dental infections and corneal problems. Three of the rescued miners had immediate surgery under general anesthesia for dental problems.
The miners had a 50 square meters (540 sq ft) emergency shelter with two long benches, but ventilation problems had led them to move out to a tunnel. In addition to the shelter, they had some 2 kilometers (1.2 mi) of galleries in which to move around. The miners used backhoes to dig for underground water sources. Some water was obtained from the radiators of vehicles inside the mineshaft. Food supplies were limited and the men had lost an average of 8 kilograms (18 lb) each. Although the emergency supplies were intended for only two or three days, the miners rationed them and were able to make them last for two weeks, running out just before they were discovered. They consumed “two little spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk and a biscuit every 48 hours” and a morsel of peach. The men used truck batteries to power their hard hat lamps for illumination.
After his release from the hospital, Mario Sepúlveda said “All 33 trapped miners, practicing a one-man, one-vote democracy, worked together to maintain the mine, look for escape routes and keep up morale.” He said, “We knew that if society broke down we would all be doomed. Each day a different person took a bad turn. Every time that happened, we worked as a team to try to keep the morale up.” He and some of the older miners helped to support the younger men, he said, but all have taken an oath of silence not to reveal certain details of what occurred down the mine, particularly during the early weeks of desperation.
Ávalos said the men kept hope of a survival by pulling together to beat hunger, thirst and desperation underground. “As a group we had to keep faith, we had to keep hope, we had to all believe that we would survive,” he said. Franklin Lobos, a former professional footballer, said he and his fellow miners had acted like a great football team. “We pulled together when things got rough, when there was nothing, when we needed to drink water and there wasn’t any to drink. We pulled together when there was no food, when you just had to eat a teaspoon of tuna because there was nothing else. That really bonded us,” he said.
In late August the miners filmed a 40-minute video, recorded by a mini-camera sent by the government through the palomas, in which 28 of the 33 miners appeared. The video demonstrated that most of them were in good spirits and reasonably good health, though they had all lost weight.
“It also demonstrated that they were organized — they have established places to sleep, to play games and to put their waste” said Dr. Jaime Mañalich, Chile’s health minister. Mario Sepúlveda serves as the ebullient host throughout the video and leads the viewer through a tour of sleeping quarters, the dining area and displayed where they kept their rations which now only held water bottles. Of the highlighted areas was their first aid box with items including rubbing alcohol. There were a few cooking utensils, a fire extinguisher and a pinup poster of a woman as well.
The men were seen to be mainly bare chested, bearded, and all were covered with a sheen of sweat from the high heat and humidity of the mine at that depth. Several of the miners looked to be very thin and some were camera shy. The host, Sepúlveda, avoided specifics about the health of the men and used the vaguer term “complicated” to refer to their situation. He did however work to maintain an upbeat attitude and insisted that things were looking brighter for the trapped men.
The video generally portrays a positive, light atmosphere. One of the miners joked, to the chuckles of his colleagues that “The only good thing about getting out will be that out there you can take a bath”. “That’s true,” the host concurs with a grin. Sepúlveda leads some of the group in the Chilean national anthem at the end of the video to show unity with the Chilean people driving their rescue. Sepúlveda also discussed the value of Luis Urzúa, the miner’s 54-year-old shift leader to further inspire confidence in the group’s ability to survive. He goes on to say that Urzúa has brought “calm” to the men. Urzúa appears saying “We are all anxious to get out of here and see our friends and families, those that are working day and night up there, the mining family and 17 million Chileans.”
“It’s been a bit of a long shift,” said the foreman whose level-headedness and gentle humor helped keep the miners under his charge focused on survival during their 70-day underground ordeal. Luis Urzúa kept his cool. In his first audio contact with officials on the surface, he glossed over the hunger and despair he and his men had felt, saying instead: “We’re fine, waiting for you to rescue us.”
“The hierarchy and power of a supervisor in the world of the miner is extremely powerful; it is a military discipline,” Chilean Minister of Health Jaime Manalich explained as he discussed Urzúa’s role in organizing the men and their ability to adjust to their increasingly complicated situation. “Natural selection is extremely strong in this world,” and results in a shift foreman becoming the virtual “owner of the mine” during his normal 12-hour shift. “This is an extremely dangerous job, if you look at the statistics, this region of Chile has the highest worker mortality rate in the nation and that is led by mining.” Commander Andreas Llarena, Chilean Navy, who has been assigned to the scene of the accident to assist in the coordination of the health aspects of the recovery operations also explains that “[Urzua] is a leader in his field and has been for ages. He is recognized by his peers as a leader. For a miner, their shift leader is sacred and holy. They would never think about replacing him. That is carved in stone; it is one of the commandments in the life of a miner” .
Urzua received three daily briefings: One from a doctor, another from a psychologist and the third from a miner updating him on the technical aspects of the rescue operation. The Chilean government counted on Urzua to organize a long list of tasks for his mining crew, during a daily medical conference call. An example of his self-confidence is when he told Dr. Manalich to “keep it short, we have lots of work to do.”
Urzúa split his men into three groups, to build team spirit. He set up the rationing system that was crucial to the miners’ survival. Toward the end, as the wait for a rescue the men had at first hoped would be only days away wore on, the rations were stretched out to every 48 hours. He took charge underground, dividing their habitat into separate areas for sleeping, working and washing, and kept his men occupied with 12-hour shifts to maintain the kind of discipline he learned while doing his military service. He instilled a sense of structure and order among his men, who even he admitted had been initially overcome by desperation after the cave-in revealed a wall of rock hemming them in. Urzúa also drew on his training as a topographer to map the tunnels that became their sticky, damp home. He used a white pickup truck as an underground office, and turned the lights of other trucks on and off to simulate daylight. “He likes things to be clear,” says his brother Juan Carlos.
Urzúa credited majority decision-making for the trapped men’s good esprit de corps and dedication to their common goal. “You just have to speak the truth and believe in democracy,” said Urzúa. “Everything was voted on ... We were 33 men, so 16 plus one was a majority.”
With the honor of beleaguered ships’ captains over the ages, 54-year-old Urzúa was the last man out after 70 long days trapped below the Atacama desert. Following the collapse of the mine on 5 August, the leader dispatched men to find out what had happened and see if it was possible to escape but they could not find an exit route. “We were trying to find out what we could do and what we could not,” said Urzúa. “Then we had to figure out the food.” Urzúa tried to instill a philosophical acceptance of fate so they could accept their situation and move on to embrace the essential tasks of survival.Luis Urzúa (54), the shift foreman trapped with the men, recognizing the gravity of the situation and the difficulty of any rescue attempt, gathered the men in a secure room called a “refuge”, and organized the men and meager resources for a long-term survival situation. Just after the incident, he led three men to scout up the tunnel, confirming the situation, he then made detailed maps of the area to aid the rescue effort. He led the underground portion of the rescue operation coordinating closely with the surface engineers over the teleconference links
Florencio Ávalos (31), second in command of the group, assisted Urzúa organizing the men. Because of his experience, physical fitness and emotional stability, he was selected to be the first miner to ride the rescue capsule to the surface in case of complications during the 15 minute ascent in the claustrophobic shaft. Naturally shy, he served as the video communications camera operator for the videos sent up to their families. He was trapped along with his younger brother Renan.
Yonni Barrios (50), became the medic of the trapped miners, monitoring their health, giving vaccinations, and giving detailed medical reports to the team of doctors on the surface. His fellow miners jokingly referred to him as “Dr. House” from the popular American TV medical drama.
Mario Gómez (63), was the eldest miner and became the religious leader in the group, organizing a chapel with a shrine containing statues of saints, and aided the surface psychologists’ counseling efforts.
José Henríquez (54), a preacher who has also worked in mining for 33 years, he served as the miners’ pastor and organized daily prayers.
Mario Sepúlveda (40), served as the energetic host of the miners’ video journals that were sent to the surface to reassure the world that they were doing well. The local media dubbed him “Super Mario” after the Super Mario Bros. video game for his energy, wit and humor.
Ariel Ticona (29), served as the group’s communications specialist, maintaining the underground portion of the telephone and videoconferencing systems that were sent down by the surface team.