Chile rescuers begin work of drilling to miners

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SAN JOSE MINE, Chile (AP) — Thirty-three men stuck far underground are now the longest-trapped miners in recent history as a huge drill begins digging a planned escape route.

The men were trapped Aug. 5 when a landslide blocked the shaft down into the San Jose copper and gold mine in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China, and the Chileans surpassed that mark Tuesday.

While doubts and extreme challenges remain, experts said rescuers have the tools to get the job done — though the government still says it will take three to four months to reach the miners.

“The drill operators have the best equipment available internationally,” said Dave Feickert, director of KiaOra, a mine safety consulting firm in New Zealand that has worked extensively with China's government to improve dangerous mines there.

“This doesn’t mean it will be easy,” he added. “They are likely to run into some technical problems that may slow them down.”

The 31-ton drill made a shallow, preliminary test hole Tuesday in the solid rock it must bore through, the first step in the weeklong digging of a “pilot hole” to guide the way for the rescue. Later the drill will be outfitted with larger bits to gradually expand the hole and make it big enough so the men can be pulled out one by one.

Before rescuers dug small bore holes down to the miners’ emergency shelter, the men survived 17 days without contact with the outside world by rationing a 48-hour supply of food and digging for water in the ground.

Aside from their rescue, a union leader has expressed concern for the men’s livelihoods.

San Esteban, the company that operates the mine, has said it has no money to pay their wages and absorb lawsuits, and is not even participating in the rescue. State-run mining company Codelco has taken over.

Union leader Evelyn Olmos called on the government to pay the workers’ wages starting in September, as well as giving help to the roughly 100 other people at the mine who are now out of work and 170 more who work elsewhere for San Esteban. Its license has been suspended by the government.

“We want the government to pay our salaries in full until our comrades are freed and then pay our severances,” said Olmos.

Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the government was prohibited by labor laws from assuming responsibility for the salaries. He said it was up to the mining company and would have to be worked out in Chilean courts.

Golborne noted the extraordinary circumstances of the mine collapse but pointed out there are many other Chileans who lack a job and said the government cannot be responsible for all of them.

Union leaders and others blame the government in part for the San Jose accident because the mine had been cited for safety violations in the past but was allowed to continue operating.

In 2007, executives were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a miner. The worker’s family settled and the mine was closed until it could comply with safety rules, said Sen. Baldo Prokurica, who has long called for tougher regulations.

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