Chile's San Jose mine collapsed 5 years ago, trapping 33 miners
All miners were pulled to safety 69 days later
The overwhelming international attention on the miners has since faded
Editor’s Note: This is one in an occasional series called “Rewind: Where are they now?” It catches up with people who stumbled into the headlines – and then faded from view. Five years ago on October 13, the 33 miners who became trapped in a Chilean mine were brought to safety.
Shift leader Luis Urzua checked the time.
It was about 1:40 p.m. He had just felt a rumble in the Earth, and over the clanging and clamoring of mining equipment, Urzua heard a noise.
Despite the unnerving rumble, he continued working at the San José Mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert. He and a group of men were working to extract gold and copper nearly a half-mile below ground in the 100-plus-year-old mine.
But five minutes later, Urzua felt the mountain rumble again, and he knew something was wrong.
“The mountain always gives you a warning. The mountain doesn’t collapse on its own. This is something we know as miners – there is always something,” said Urzua, who had been a miner for 31 years.
A month earlier, Urzua heard rumbling so severe, he said he called his crew to a different sector to evacuate. His superiors investigated and told him there was nothing to worry about, he said. The miners got back to work.
They were supposed to have a safety meeting on August 6 to discuss the previous month’s activity in the mine. They never had the chance.
The mine collapsed August 5, 2010, trapping 33 miners, and it quickly became international news. More than 2,300 feet below ground, the miners were battling starvation and trying to cling to faith, hope and anything else to keep them alive.
To beat the odds, the miners divided what little rations they had – cans of tuna split 33 ways, cookies and greasy water intended to cool mining equipment.
Rescuers drilled more than a dozen holes, trying to find the men. And after days of no signs of life, then-Chilean President Sebastian Piñera began plans for a giant cross to memorialize the miners. But on August 22, 2010, the world learned the men were alive after a drilling tool emerged from the deep with a note attached to it. The note said all 33 men were alive.
After an arduous rescue process, involving three different drilling projects racing to pull the miners from their underground prison, the miners were extracted one-by-one in a capsule called the Phoenix.
Five years later, many struggle with the psychological scars of their entrapment and have some have had trouble holding down a job.
Sure, at first there were the talk shows and the speaking engagements. They were invited to the Greek island of Crete. They were invited to Disney World. CNN honored them as heroes in Los Angeles. Soccer team Manchester United invited them as guests of honor to the club’s training facility, supplying them with box seats to watch a match. They even took a trip to Jerusalem, invited by Israel for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
But with time, the public interest in the miners began to fade, and with it, so did the trips and money.
Today, many of the miners have trouble making ends meet, some living off a government pension, which pays about $500 dollars per month. That’s roughly half of what they made working at the San José Mine.
Urzua receives that pension, too. He and other miners hope a book and movie deal for a film opening later this year will mean money in their pockets. But they measure their enthusiasm because until now, fame has come without fortune.
Another miner, Jorge Galleguillos, subsidizes his pension by giving tours to visitors at the mine site for donations. He is somewhat of the group historian – collecting the photos they took, the boots they wore, and other mementos from their life underground. By doing so, he hopes to keep their story alive. The now 61-year-old says he teaches and performs Chilean folk dance to chase off the nightmares that wake him up at 4 a.m. every morning.
“I’m alive thanks to God. That’s the important thing. But I should be doing better. I should be doing better,” he said.
Like many of the miners, Galleguillos has struggled with the harrowing time spent trapped in the mine and immediately after his rescue received mental health help.
Miner Alex Vega knows how Galleguillos feels.
“The psychiatrist tells me that I’ve improved a lot … from where I was initially,” Vega said.
This could be in part because his mind is never idle. Vega has fared better than most of the miners, working as a mechanic by day, and working late into each night on a new home for his family.
“It keeps my mind busy,” he said. “If I’m not working, memories start flooding my mind.”
Edison Pena, the miner who later ran the New York City Marathon and Ariel Ticona, would run in the tunnels of the mine to stay fit and stay busy while he and his comrades were trapped.
Ticona’s daughter, Esperanza, was born while he was underground, and he was able to watch a video of her birth while in the mine. Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope.
His passion was always soccer, and he took to the field surprisingly soon after his rescue and recovery.
“Two days after I was released from the hospital, I went to go play with my neighborhood soccer team,” he said.
Ticona still plays soccer for his neighborhood team, and as the 32nd miner to be brought up from the mine, he has taken that number as a moniker and wears it proudly on his jersey. He plays to stay busy.
After a freak rainstorm and flooding badly damaged his home, he and his family moved in with his mother and he struggles to secure work. Ticona relies mostly on his government pension, but in the middle of so much gloom is a sign of hope. His son, Ariel Alejandro Ticona Segovia, was born on July 9, 2015.
After a lengthy investigation into the mine collapse, prosecutors in 2013 said there was not enough evidence to press criminal charges.
Today, life has presented different challenges for each of the 33 miners. But the event that unites them is a reminder of what they can achieve with will and faith.