SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The inquiry into the mine collapse that trapped 33 men for more than two months in 2010 has ended with no charges filed, a result that drew angry responses Thursday from the rescued miners.
The cave-in at the San Jose mine in the Atacama desert brought the mine’s safety record into focus and put mining, Chile’s top industry, under close scrutiny.
The decision by a prosecutor in the northern region of Atacama to bring no charges against mine owners Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemmeny, or Chile’s Mining Ministry’s regulatory unit, was announced late Wednesday after a three-year investigation.
“This is a disgrace to Chile’s justice system,” Mario Sepulveda, who became the public face of the miners, told The Associated Press.
“It’s impossible that in an accident of this magnitude no one is held responsible,” Sepulveda said. “Today, I want to dig a deep hole and bury myself again; only this time, I don’t want anybody to find me.”
The miners said it felt like an earthquake when the shaft caved in above them on Aug. 5, 2010, filling the lower parts of the copper and gold mine with dust. Hours passed before they could even begin to see a few steps in front of them. Tons of rock shifted constantly above, threatening to bury them forever.
People on the surface didn’t know for more than two weeks that the men had survived, and the 33 miners stretched a meager 48-hour store of emergency food for 17 days, eating tiny capsules of tuna and sips of expired milk. A narrow shaft finally was drilled into their haven and the world learned they were alive.
That shaft allowed food and water to reach the men while rescuers drilled a bigger escape hole. Finally, in an operation that ended in the early hours of Oct. 13, the miners were hauled up one by one in a cage through 2,000 feet (600 meters) of rock.
Renato Prenafeta, a lawyer for 31 of the 33 miners, said his legal team will review the background that led to the prosecutor’s decision and present its own arguments. Prenafeta has also filed a civil suit asking for compensation for the harm and damage suffered by the miners over the past three years.
“Most of the people I represent are still suffering from serious psychological consequences,” Prenafeta said. “Many can’t even work. It’s a very dramatic situation.”
The miners received a hero’s welcome after their globally televised rescue. They received paid trips to the Greek Islands, visited the Real Madrid stadium in Spain and paraded at Magic Kingdom in Disney World.
But their fantasy began to crumble on their return home.
Many ran out of money and had to scratch out a living in the dusty working class neighborhoods of the desert city of Copiapo. Some began suffering from health and psychological problems. Others took to alcohol and drugs.
“I’m upset by this decision,” said Omar Reygadas, one of the rescued miners who is now unemployed.
“Most mine owners are afraid to hire us because they think that if there’s ever a problem everyone will immediately find out about it since we get a lot press. We’re well known.”
President Sebastian Pinera supervised the 22-hour rescue of the miners and their survival story sent his popularity ratings soaring. Minutes after all the miners were safe on the surface, he vowed that those responsible would be held accountable.
A Chilean congressional commission in 2011 found the owners of the 125-year-old mine responsible for the cave-in.
“Because we’re part of the government, we can’t give our opinion on these decisions, but we obviously hope the civil suit stays on the right track so they can get compensation,” Mining Minister Hernan de Solminihac, told state TV. “Most importantly, we continue to stand behind the 33.”
Mining-related deaths in Chile fell 36 percent in 2011 to 27, compared to 41 in 2010, the year of the cave-in, according to a report by the Mining Ministry. The report says that thanks to increased oversight by inspectors, accidents at the country’s 8,500 mines also fell by 40 percent in 2011, the lowest level in 21 years.
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao