Trapped miners in Chile: families camp out above ground — awaiting loved ones’ rescue

COPIAPO, Chile — Family members and the government are trying to keep optimistic about the rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped in the San Jose mine a month ago.

They are also having to confront the tensions that come along with weathering the wait living alongside fellow family supporters amid the highs and lows of a difficult rescue, which could be four months away.

“We have to find ways to pass the time up here,” says Chata Segovia, who is waiting for her brother Dario to be rescued. “We have to show our own good spirits to send the miners positive energy.”

Camp Hope, as relatives have called the makeshift gathering, lies in what may be one of the world’s bleakest environments – the Atacama Desert, a lonely stretch of taupe-colored plains and rolling hills studded with rocks.

But below the sands of this desert lie some of the world’s richest mineral deposits – an area where the 33 Chilean miners could remain trapped.

Fried fish, vigils — even some playful verses

Families and government workers marked the one-month anniversary of the mine’s collapse over the weekend with a memorial on the hillside above the mine, as well as a fried fish lunch.

At moments the camp felt upbeat and even celebratory; groups of kids played in the shade, and local fisherman who came to prepare lunch told jokes while they stirred big steaming pots. A group of female family members, including Ms. Segovia, even sang some playful verses they’d written for the miners.

But life in Camp Hope is often tense. Some miners have various women staging vigils for them – women who were previously unaware of one another’s existence. In some families, members harbor old grudges and are now being forced to spend long periods of time in close contact. There have been conflicts reported about who should get the miners’ paychecks. And there’s been more than one confrontation in the camp.

The government has been trying to balance the atmosphere – seeking to mediate and reduce arguments between those at Camp Hope, while reprimanding the party atmosphere that has, at times, taken over. Chile’s Minister of Mining, Laurence Golborne, sternly reproached those who supported serving alcohol for upcoming independence day celebrations on Sept. 18. “This is not a party,” he said. “This is still a very serious situation. Those men are not out yet.”

The rescue

For all of the clashes above ground, family members recognize that it is nothing like what their loved ones might be experiencing deep in the ground below.

Currently, teams are drilling shafts to reach the men. Several plans are in action that serve as backups. The men are at 2,300 feet underground and by most estimates it could take between two and four months to reach them.
Some miners have reportedly balked at government restrictions on alcohol and cigarettes below. They have complained that they don’t know enough about the rescue effort and that the letters sent down to them from relatives are being censored, so as not to upset them.
Specialists from NASA are assisting in the handling of the miners and their psychological well-being for the long weeks ahead.

 The men have organized into teams, who now sleep and eat in turns. Everyone is given tasks such as cleaning; organizing supplies; and receiving the hourly deliveries of food, water, and other necessities. But their family members know that even if this time goes as smoothly as possible, the miners could be undergoing big changes.

“He’s always been affectionate,” says Cristina Nuñez of her longtime partner, Claudio Yañez. “But in his letters he sounds more needy, more communicative. I don’t believe he’s just going to walk out of that mine [unchanged]. He’s not going to be the same Claudio — he’ll be a different Claudio.”

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