Trapped Chilean miners send note saying they are alive after 17 days


SANTIAGO -- Thirty-three Chilean miners trapped 17 days deep underground sent a message that they were all alive Sunday, but rescuers said it could take until Christmas to dig them out.

President Sebastian Pinera said the miners’ note was tied to a drill that rescuers used to bore into the area near an underground shelter, where the miners took refuge after an Aug. 5 cave-in at the small gold and copper mine in the far north.

“The 33 of us in the shelter are well,” read the message written with red paint on a piece of paper that Pinera held aloft on television. Pinera sacked top officials of Chile’s mining regulator and vowed a major overhaul of the agency in light of the accident.

Rescuers lowered a television camera down the bore-hole, and some of the miners looked into the lens. Some were bare-chested because of the mine’s heat, but officials said they looked in better-than-expected condition. Rescuers could not establish an audio link, however.

But the miners’ ordeal may have just begun: Rescuers say it could take four months — until around Christmas — to get them out. Because of the mine’s depth and the instability caused by the collapse, rescuers will need to proceed slowly and with caution.

But the important thing, Pinera said, is that they are alive. “Today all of Chile is crying with excitement and joy,” he said.

Relatives hugged, kissed, sang the national anthem and thanked God as news of the message spread outside the entrance to the mine, where they had camped since the cave-in.

“We never, never lost faith. We knew they were there, and that they would be rescued,” family member Eduardo Hurtado told Reuters, as other miners’ relatives waved red, white and blue Chilean flags and cheered.

Around 200 people gathered in a square in Santiago, the capital, waving flags in celebration. Drivers honked their horns and diners applauded in restaurants.

The miners are 4.5 miles inside the winding mine and about 2,300 feet vertically underground, in a shelter the size of a small apartment.

Authorities said they had limited amounts of food, and doctors advised sending glucose, enriched mineral water and medicines as well as other food. Health officials estimated the miners each may have lost up to 20 pounds.

Deep in the mine, there are tanks of water and ventilation shafts that helped the miners survive. They used the batteries of a truck that was in the mine to charge their helmet lamps, some of which were shining in the television images.

“God is great,” 63-year-old Mario Gomez, the eldest of the trapped miners, wrote in a letter to his wife attached to the drill.

“This company has got to modernize,” he added. “But I want to tell everyone I’m OK, and am sure we will survive.”

Rescuers had drilled repeatedly in an effort to reach the shelter but failed seven times; they blamed the errors on the mining company’s maps. According to Gomez’s note, at least some of those probes were close enough that the trapped miners heard them.

Rescuers’ hopes rose after the eighth attempt early Sunday when they heard hammering. They sent down a probe, and when they pulled it up they found two notes inside, both of which Pinera read on television. Gomez wrote the other note to his wife, confirming the miners’ location underground and saying he loved her.

Liliana Ramirez couldn’t believe it when Chile’s mining minister said her husband had sent a note to his “Dearest Lila.”

“I know my husband is strong, and at 63, is the most experienced miner who could lead his co-workers,” she told the Associated Press. “But no more mining” for him.

Gomez wrote that the miners used vehicles for light and a backhoe to dig a canal to retrieve underground water.

The opening that rescuers dug is not wide enough to haul the miners out. Rescue equipment from outside the country was being assembled Sunday to dig a tunnel 27 inches in diameter through which the miners will eventually be brought to the surface.

The hole already drilled will be used to send down small capsules containing food, water and oxygen if necessary, and sound and video equipment so the miners can communicate better with loved ones and rescuers.

Serious mining accidents are rare in Chile, but the government says the San Jose mine, owned by local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, has had a series of mishaps and 16 workers have been killed in recent years. The mine is near the city of Copiapo in the Atacama region,

The miners already have been trapped underground longer than all but a few miners rescued in recent history. Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China, and two miners in northeast China were rescued after 23 days in 1983. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.

This spring, 115 Chinese miners were rescued after being trapped for more than a week. That accident killed 38 miners.

The Chile miners’ plight has drawn parallels with the story of 16 people who survived more than 72 days in the Andes after a 1972 plane crash. Their story was later made into the Hollywood movie “Alive.”

Word of the miners’ survival was a rush of good news in a country still rebuilding from a magnitude-8.8 earthquake Feb. 27 and its resulting tsunami, which together killed at least 521 people and left 200,000 homeless.