No one will be charged over the mining accident that trapped 33 Chilean workers deep underground for more than two months in 2010, while the world watched with baited breath as rescuers worked desperately to bring them back to the surface.
The decision, announced by prosecutors today, prompted a furious reaction from the victims – many of them still traumatised by their ordeal. They were eventually plucked to safety in a metal capsule, one by one, up a narrow 2,300ft shaft at the San José mine in the Atacama desert, 500 miles north of in the capital, Santiago.
“It is impossible that in an accident of this magnitude no one is held responsible,” said Mario Sepulveda, one of the survivors. “Today, I want to dig a deep hole and bury myself again. Only this time, I don’t want anybody to find me.”
In separate comments, he attacked Chile’s “crappy” justice system and told the website Soychile that the former mine owners, Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny, were now “wandering around free and happy … despite the fact that they left us buried”.
Another survivor, Esteban Rojas, told the Chilean paper La Tercera: “Sernageomin [Chile’s National Geology and Mining Service] should be found guilty for not investigating as it should have.”
But Hector Mella, chief prosecutor for the Atacama region, said the decision not to charge the pair was unavoidable given that Sernageomin investigators could not reach the scene of the accident to carry out forensic research and establish the precise cause. “The base element, the ‘why’ the cave-in occurs, is not there,” he said.
Mr Mella also dismissed claims from the miners that they heard rumblings, a clear warning sign, before the accident, saying: “I am not in a position to refute or confirm what the miners were saying, that there were signs the deposit was presenting problems.”
The decision comes despite the fact that the mine had faced several safety alerts in the decade prior to the accident, including at least three deaths and one amputation. Union leaders had repeatedly complained about standards at the mine, which nevertheless had no shortage of willing miners due to the relatively high wages it offered.
It also contradicts a 2011 report by Chile’s Congress that found the owners “could have avoided” the collapse of the mine ceiling and accused Sernageomin of failing to enforce its own safety rulings.
The 33 miners were trapped in a small chamber nearly half a mile underground after a cave-in at the 120-year-old gold and copper mine on 5 August 2010. Initially presumed dead, they survived in searing heat for 17 days, eating tiny rations of tinned tuna and sipping sour milk until rescuers using remote listening devices realised they were still alive.
A major international rescue effort was then launched, involving a team of Nasa scientists, nutritionists and psychologists dedicated to keeping the men in good physical and mental health, with several thin shafts drilled to the group, to provide them with fresh air, food, water, medicine and ultra-violet light, while a wider shaft, just big enough to fit the custom-made cage, was finished. The 33 were eventually brought to the surface on 13 October – after 69 days underground – in an operation covered live by the world’s television stations.
After the rescue, the men became global celebrities, invited on all-expenses-paid trips to everything from Disneyworld to Real Madrid’s training camp. But since then, back in Chile, they have struggled to come to terms with their ordeal. Several have had high-profile problems with drink and drugs, and many have struggled to find work, even claiming that potential employers are intimidated by the 33’s unwanted fame and the risk that any problems they now have could attract the media spotlight.
Just about the only people who did appear satisfied with the prosecutors’ decision were the owners of the mine. Their lawyer, Catherine Lathrop, said: “We have always insisted that although the 33 was a regrettable accident, it is just that, an accident.”
Hard times: Miners suffer out of spotlight
For a while, they had the attention and adulation of the world. Each of “Los 33” was handed a free motorcycle by Kawasaki and $15,000 by a local businessman. They enjoyed all-expenses-paid trips to Greece, Israel and Disneyworld. But as the limelight faded, many returned to impoverished lives, and have struggled with psychological and health problems.
“Super” Mario Sepulveda, the charismatic spokesman during their time underground, has toured the world giving motivational lectures and will be played by Antonio Banderas in the forthcoming film The 33.
Most have returned to their humble origins. A year after the 2010 rescue, Samuel Avalos was back selling pirate CDs. Two others, Osman Araya and Dario Segovia, took jobs selling fruit. A few went back down the mines. Others are unemployed. Yonni Barrios, like several others, is dying of an incurable lung disease caused by crystalline silica dust in mines.
After their rescue, the miners decided to pool any money from film rights and book deals and appointed survivor Omar Reygadas as their spokesman. He has toured the world on behalf of the group, though he is still tormented by nightmares.