Chile's Earthquake and Mining

Kristi McCracken, November 5, 2010

In February 2010, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake shook Santiago, Chile, killing 486. It damaged over a half a million homes displacing over 2 million people. The ferocity was 800 times greater than the earthquake that hit Haiti.

Rescue teams had difficulty accessing cities such as Concepción because of the damaged roads, bridges, and buildings. Fires, blackouts, looters, and escaped prisoners added to the difficulties.

Three hospitals collapsed in Santiago and a dozen more south of the capital had significant damage. A fifteen-story residential building fell backwards trapping many of the residents. In fear of aftershocks people slept in tents, in the parks and on the streets.

The worst-hit sectors were the poor neighborhoods of adobe houses. In spite of the great need and tough conditions, aid in the form of food, water, and medical supplies trickled in slowly.

A tsunami wave triggered by the quake devastated several coastal cities and caused serious damage to port facilities lifting boats out of the water. The tsunami raised waves 7 feet high half way around the world doing millions of dollars of damage to fisheries in Japan.

Insurance repair estimates have reached over $5 billion and Chile’s president said it would take years to rebuild. Chile has not experienced an earthquake of this magnitude in 50 years.

Miner and engineer Raul Bustos survived February's earthquake, but lost his job in the tsunami that followed. His search for work ended with employment in the San José gold and copper mine. He was one of the 33 Chilean miners trapped below the earth’s surface this fall for 2 months.

After the mine collapsed, he worked to divert water away from the men's sleeping area and devised a plumbing system to flush waste underground. Miners had to drink water that tasted like oil which was caustic to their stomachs.

Relatives of the trapped miners said that workers had expressed concerns about the precarious condition of the mines, but were ignored because their bosses were more concerned about production. Locals called the miners kamikazes because of the dangers of their job and 30% higher salaries seem to be a sort of hazard pay.

After the collapse it took 17 days before those on the surface knew the fate of the 33 miners and discovered the challenging living conditions. Entombed alive, uncertain of being rescued, they struggled to survive in spite of the heat, humidity, poor air quality and lack of food.

Local psychologists supported the miner's family treating them as victims and offering assurances about the men's safety with daily briefings before news was released to the press.

Meanwhile the men were sent medicine, clothes and games through a 700-meter borehole. A modified telephone line was set up for them to talk to rescuers and psychologists.

A NASA engineer designed the rescue capsule to extract the men. The miners had to stay slim so they’d fit in it. They worked out, wore compression socks and took pills to lower their risk of blood clots.

Inside the capsule, miners wore dark glasses to protect their eyes against the sunlight. Oxygen masks helped prevent them from becoming nauseous, and lessened the potential for panic or fainting as the capsule spun around and up. The transition from the stifling underground heat to that of the cold surface temperature was one of many shocks to the miners’ systems as they made their 15 minute ascent.

The joy of returning to their families had its complications as well. Facing death in such a prolonged case such as the miners did may cause trouble readjusting to normal life. Becoming publicly known figures overnight can add a weighty dimension.

Rescued Chilean miners will have regular medical checks to guide their recovery to physical and mental health over the next several months. Post-traumatic stress symptoms such as flashbacks and anxiety are expected.

The “tough guy” miner image can help if it makes them strong, but can hurt if miners don’t ask for help. Luckily, the push for greater mining production didn’t exact a human toll in terms of loss of lives this time, but what about next time?

Chile has one of Latin America's fastest growing economies, yet income inequalities are great. Chile is the world's largest producer of copper, and its 4% growth rate has been largely fuelled by copper exports. This country, like many others, lacks adequate safety standards to protect the miners who make its prosperity possible.

The government’s reconstruction work after the earthquake and the rescue of 33 trapped miners has helped to improve Chile’s world status, but prayers are still needed as much suffering remains.

Mother Earth has spoken yet again. Are we listening? Can our compassionate hearts grow big enough to encompass and dissolve the pain of Chileans? Join us as we circle the planet in another healing wave from noon to 1:00 on Sun. Nov. 28.

Kristi McCracken is a journalist from the Central Valley in California.