THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

33 Chilean miners are alive, but still trapped

After 2 weeks, probe reaches shelter; rescue is months away

Jose Manuel de la Maza/Associated Press/La Moneda press office President Sebastian Pinera of Chile yesterday showed the message sent by the miners trapped since a tunnel collapse on Aug. 5.
Jose Manuel de la Maza/Associated Press/La Moneda press office
President Sebastian Pinera of Chile yesterday showed the message sent by the miners trapped since a tunnel collapse on Aug. 5.
(Jose Manuel De La Maza/Associated Press/La Moneda Press Office)
By Federico Quilodran
Associated Press / August 23, 2010

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SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile’s president euphorically waved the note, written deep inside a collapsed mine, that his country waited 17 agonizing days to see: “All 33 of us are fine in the shelter,’’ one of the trapped miners wrote in red letters.

Authorities and relatives of the miners hugged, climbed a nearby hill, planted 33 flags, and sang the national anthem yesterday after a probe sent some 2,257 feet deep into the mine came back with the note.

“We are overjoyed at the news,’’ President Sebastian Pinera said. “Today all of Chile is crying with excitement and joy.’’

But the miners’ ordeal will not end soon. Rescuers say it could take four months — until around Christmas — to get them out.

The men already have been trapped underground longer than all but a few miners in recent history. Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China, and two miners in northeast China were rescued after 23 days in 1983. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.

For the moment, however, news that the men survived the Aug. 5 tunnel collapse outshines all other details.

“I’m happy, happy,’’ said one of miner Mario Gomez’s three daughters. “For the first time, I’ll be able to sleep peacefully.’’

Pinera told Cooperativa radio that he saw video of the miners from a camera sent through the probe.

“I saw eight or nine of them,’’ Pinera said. “They were waving their hands. They got close to the camera and we could see their eyes, their joy.’’

When rescuers early yesterday sent the probe, , one of eight drilled since the mine collapse, they heard hammering sounds and immediately turned optimistic.

Pinera traveled to the site after contact was made with the miners, who are in a shelter about the size of a small apartment.

“I thank the miners for their bravery, for their courage,’’ he said.

Word of the miners’ survival was a rush of good news in a country still rebuilding from a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in February and its resulting tsunami, which killed at least 521 people and left 200,000 homeless.

Mine officials and relatives of the workers had hoped the men had been able to reach the shelter when the tunnel collapsed at the San Jose gold and copper mine about 530 miles north of the capital, Santiago. But they had said air and food supplies would last only 48 hours.

Rescuers drilled repeatedly in an effort to reach the shelter but failed seven times; they blamed the errors on the mining company’s maps.

Yesterday crews sent down a probe, then pulled it up with two notes the trapped miners had placed inside, including the one Pinera read.

Gomez, 63, wrote the other note to his wife, confirming the miners’ location underground. “I haven’t stopped thinking about the family for one minute. I love you all,’’ Gomez wrote.

“When the mining minister said he had sent me a note, I couldn’t believe it,’’ said Gomez’s wife, Lila Ramirez. “I know my husband is strong, and at 63, is the most experienced miner who could lead his co-workers. But no more mining [for him.]’’

Gomez wrote that the miners used vehicles for light and a backhoe to dig a canal to retrieve underground water.

The opening the miners used to deliver the notes is not wide enough to haul up the men. Rescue equipment brought from outside the country was being assembled to dig a tunnel 27 inches in diameter through which the miners will eventually be brought to the surface.

The hole already drilled will be used to send down capsules containing food, water, and oxygen if necessary, as well as sound and video equipment so the miners can better communicate with loved ones and rescuers.

This spring 115 Chinese miners were rescued after being trapped for more than a week because workers digging tunnels had broken into a water-filled abandoned shaft. The accident killed 38 miners.

Chile’s drama shares some parallels with the 2002 Quecreek Mine accident, in which nine Pennsylvania miners were trapped in a flooded tunnel about 15 miles from where one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, crashed some 10 months earlier. All nine miners were rescued three days later.

Hundreds of workers are using equipment from the United States and Australia in the Chilean rescue.

Both the company that owns the mine, San Esteban, and the National Mining and Geology Service have been criticized for allegedly failing to comply with regulations. In 2007, an explosion at the San Jose mine killed three workers.

Relatives of the trapped men have been camped outside the mine since the accident occurred. On Saturday, some of the family members criticized officials for continuing to use probes to locate the miners rather than digging tunnels.

Chile is the world’s top copper producer and a leading gold producer. Rising copper prices have been a boon for the country, but increased mining has put a strain on mines with older infrastructure.

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