Fate of Chile's trapped miners excites guarded hope

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An image of Yonni Hector Barrios Rojas, 50, one of 33 miner trapped at the San Jose collapsed mine
Image caption,
Families have erected shrines to their loved ones

There is still a sense of optimism and elation at the entrance to the San Jose copper mine in Copiapo in northern Chile.

Relatives of the 33 miners, who are trapped below, are celebrating the simple fact that their loved ones are alive after 19 days underground.

But it is an optimism tempered by realism. There is a growing acknowledgment that it will be months, not days or weeks, before this rescue operation is over.

With supplies reaching the miners through a narrow borehole, the focus now has switched to drilling a second hole - this one much wider - that will eventually be used as an escape route.

But experts warn it could take up to four months.

"To drill through solid rock of 700m a hole of 66cm takes a lot of time. It's not as easy as in the movies," Chile's Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told the BBC.

"This is not a movie, it is real life."

The minister said that engineers were working to try to speed the process and that the realistic period of time to rescue the men would be between three to four months.

Earthquake survivor

Meanwhile, the relatives of the miners remain camped out on the surface. Many have set up shrines to their loved ones, adorned with photographs and personal messages of support.

"Have strength," reads one banner strung across the camp. "A mountain of earth and rocks is no match for this handful of people from the Atacama."

Above the banner, on the barren hillside of the desert, flutter 33 red, white and blue Chilean flags.

Image caption,
Experienced miner Mario Gomez is seen as a leader of the group

As this rescue operation unfolds, details of the miners' lives are emerging.

Take Raul Bustos, for example. He is from the port city of Talcahuano, in southern Chile, which was devastated by the huge earthquake that hit the country in February.

He lost his livelihood in the quake and headed north in search of work, ending up in this mine.

In the space of six months, he has survived one of the biggest earthquakes on record, and been trapped underground for the best part of three weeks.

Also in the mine is Franklin Lobos, a former professional footballer who played in Olympic qualifiers in the 1980s for the Chilean national team.

After hanging up his boots, he followed generations of men from this part of the world, and went down the mines.

And Mario Gomez who, aged 63, is the oldest of the trapped miners and has emerged as the leader of the group.

He was the head of the shift that entered the San Jose mine on that fateful afternoon 19 days ago.

"He's not the kind of person who's going to just sit and wait to be rescued," said his wife Liliana, who is waiting for him above ground. "I knew he would be the leader of the group, helping the others."

Safety standards

The drama at the San Jose mine has shone a spotlight of mining practices in Chile, which prides itself as a nation steeped in mining tradition.

Image caption,
Emotions have swung from despair to elation

In general, Chile, which produces one-third of all the world's copper, has relatively good safety standards at its mines, certainly compared to neighbouring Bolivia and Peru.

But there had been several previous accidents at this mine and the government has launched an investigation into the way the facility is run.

The families of the miners are taking legal action against the company.

The owners have kept a low profile but in their few declarations to the media they have denied any wrongdoing. They have said there is nothing wrong with safety standards at the mine.

But investigators will want to know, for example, why there was no escape route for the miners.

"There will be no impunity, and I want to remind you that criminal and civil court cases are now under way," President Sebastian Pinera said on Monday.

"We are going to investigate to find out who was responsible, and punish those who are found guilty."

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