Depression and unpaid wages add to woes of trapped miners in Chile

There isn't yet a tunnel, let alone light at the end of it, but rescue workers in northern Chile have at last begun drilling the hole they hope will eventually provide an escape route for 33 miners who have been trapped half a mile beneath the surface for almost four weeks.

A 31-tonne excavator made a shallow "test hole" yesterday in some of the solid rock it must bore through to reach the workers, who survived 17 days without contact from the outside world but have now received supplies of food, water, clothing and medicine.

It will take at least a week for the initial pilot hole to be drilled to the chamber where the men are trapped. After that, larger drill bits will be installed to gradually widen the tunnel until it is roughly the size of a bicycle wheel, at which point the evacuation process can commence.

The men will be pulled to the surface, one by one, in a small escape pod, which will take roughly an hour to reach ground level. They have been told that it could take until Christmas for them to be freed, though some experts said yesterday that if there are no complications it could in theory be over in two months.

Either way, the 33 miners have now been trapped underground in the hot and damp chamber longer than anyone in the history of their profession. Five of the group are said to be suffering from depression, although they have been sent pharmaceuticals and allowed brief conversations with their families to help cheer them up.

Adding to their woes are growing concerns about the men's livelihoods once they do return to the surface. San Esteban, the small company which operates the gold and silver mine, says it has no money to continue paying their wages, let alone cope with the lawsuits that will inevitably arise from the ordeal. It is not even participating in the rescue, which is being run by Codelco, a state-run mining firm.

Union leaders have called on the government to pay compensation to the men, together with roughly 270 other employees of San Esteban who are now out of work. They blame the accident on poor regulation, pointing out that the mine was allowed to remain open despite repeated safety violations which led to the death of a miner in 2007.

"We want the government to pay our salaries in full until our comrades are freed and then pay our severances," said the union leader Evelyn Olmos. The Mining minister, Laurence Golborne, said however that labour laws forbade his administration from making such payments, and that the issue would have to be worked out in Chilean courts.

It is yet another worry for families of the trapped men, who are able to communicate with their loved ones through written notes and occasional telephone conversations which are carried out via three six-inch wide communication tubes which have been drilled into the area where they are trapped.

When the Strata excavator, which has been imported from Australia, completes its initial pilot hole, the men will have to begin assisting their own rescue. An estimated 4,000 tonnes of debris will fall into a mine shaft near their chamber, and they will have to help clear it from the mouth of the tunnel.

"The thing that concerns me is the welfare of the workers, their mental state. That will be real tough," said Alex Gryska, a mine rescue manager with the Canadian government. "From a health perspective, it's hot down there. They're talking about working 24/7 in 85 degrees for two months. Their mental state for that work will be critical."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions