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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Opinions 

Chile Rescues its Miners, Mexico Recalls its Tragedy
email this pageprint this pageemail usAllan Wall - PVNN
October 17, 2010



Who can fail to be inspired by the recent rescue of 33 trapped miners in the South American nation of Chile? It was a story with a happy ending that captivated the world.

I keep straining my ears to hear a sound. Maybe someone is digging underground, or have they given up and all gone home to bed, thinking those who once existed must be dead.
- The Bee Gees
This true-life drama took place in the San Jose copper-gold mine, 40 miles from Copiapo, in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. On August 5th, a mine cave-in left 33 miners trapped. For 17 days, it was unknown whether they had survived or not. But on August 22nd, a probe sent underground returned to the surface. Attached to the drill bit was a message from the trapped miners.

Communication was now established, and food, medicine, religious items and other supplies were sent to the miners, who were even included in the country’s Bicentennial festivities.

As the saga of the trapped miners progressed, it was followed by the news media and gained more and more attention. I shared the situation with my students and showed videos. So thereafter, students would ask to see current videos of the miners and share information with me that they had learned.

The miners were gotten out by drilling a shaft to their location, and inserting a one-man capsule to bring each miner up, on at a time. The actual extraction was carried out on October 13th. All 33 miners, mostly in good health, were brought to the surface. The rescue was watched by a billion people worldwide.

The miners came up to a jubilant country and to interested well-wishers worldwide. It was a great triumph for the nation of Chile.

The events in the Chilean mine were followed in Mexico. But the great success of the Chilean rescue brought up bitter memories of a Mexican mining accident that turned out to be a total disaster.

That disaster took place at the Pasta de Conchos mine in northern Mexico in 2006. In that accident, 65 miners were underground during a methane explosion. Only two bodies were found, the other 63 were not found. The search was called off in less than a week, and the mine was sealed.

In the wake of the successful Chilean mine rescue, angry voices in Mexico (including in the Congress) are bringing up Pasta de Conchas again, and contrasting it unfavorably with the rescue in Chile.

The miners in Mexico weren’t even as deep as those in Chile. The Chilean miners were trapped 2,300 feet down. In Pasta de Conchas, they were 500 feet down (according to the mining company) or 1600 feet down (according to the miners´ union). Either way, it was more shallow.

Also, the Mexican rescue effort was called off 5 days after the accident, while in Chile it was still going on 17 days later when it was discovered the miners were alive.

That all sounds bad. However, if you look at the details, there are significant differences between the two situations.

To begin with, Pasta de Conchos in Mexico and San Jose in Chile are two different kinds of mines. The mine in Chile is a copper and gold mine, the mine in Mexico is a coal mine.

Also, the accidents were different. What happened in Chile was a cave-in. In Mexico, it was a methane explosion, with a recorded temperature of up to 600 degrees centigrade within the mine.

Ending the search and sealing the mine was a judgment call. They believed that all the miners were dead and it was too dangerous for the rescue workers.

While it’s certainly true that the two situations were quite different from a technical standpoint, they were handled quite differently.

Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera displayed effective leadership in the situation, taking charge of the rescue effort and spending time at the mine at strategic junctures. Pinera was there to show the world the note from the miners, and he was there to receive the miners when they came up. Pinera accepted help from foreigners but maintained control of the situation – it remained a Chilean operation.

In contrast, the Pasta de Conchos situation, whatever you think of the technical considerations, was handled quite poorly from a public relations standpoint. Both the Mexican federal government and Grupo Mexico (the corporation that owns the mine) botched it up. Neither then-president Vicente Fox, nor Grupo Mexico CEO German Larrea, bothered to visit the mine or interact with the families. In fact, no Grupo Mexico sharehold bothered to show up. And then, after calling off the search 5 days after the explosion, the decision to seal the mine just made it look like a cover-up.

On the other hand, one might argue that Pinera wound up looking like a leader because the rescue was successful, while Fox looked bad because the Pasta de Conchos rescue was a failure.

Maybe, maybe not. But a real leader leads even when disaster occurs. I recall the late Ronald Reagan, U.S. president from 1981-1989, and how he handled the Challenger explosion. (See Reagan’s speech here). Or think of Abraham Lincoln in the first few years of the Civil War, or Churchill in early World War II.

On the other hand, the poor handling of the Pasta de Conchos tragedy by both Fox and Larrea left much to be desired, and their failure four years ago is being remembered again in the light of the Chile rescue.

Mining is still a dangerous occupation, throughout the world. In the U.S., this past April, in the Montcoal coal mine in West Virginia, 29 miners were killed in a methane explosion, similar to that of Pasta de Conchos. In China, 2,631 miners were killed in calendar year 2009, including at least 104 who perished in a single accident in Heilongjiang.

It’s estimated that 12,000 mine workers die annually, worldwide.

We send these men underground to maintain our civilization. So we better make sure we take care of them somehow.

Mining and metallurgy have been important to the human race since ancient times. Mining is still dangerous, even in this age of great technology.

There’s a passage in the Bible, in Job chapter 28, that says, "There is a mine for silver and a place where gold is refined. Iron is taken from the earth, and copper is smelted from ore. Man puts an end to the darkness; he searches the farthest recesses for ore in the blackest darkness... But where can wisdom be found?"
Allan Wall is an American citizen who has been teaching English in Mexico since 1991, and writing articles about various aspects of Mexico and Mexican society for the past decade. Some of these articles are about Mexico's political scene, history and culture, tourism, and Mexican emigration as viewed from south of the border, which you can read on his website at AllanWall.net.



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