x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

What about next time? Chileans ask

As Chile celebrated the rescue of 33 miners who had been trapped underground for more than two months, many worried about how a similar disaster could be avoided from happening again.

The Chilean president, Sebastian Pinera, top right, cheers as Mario Sepulveda Espina, with sunglasses, salutes after being rescued.
The Chilean president, Sebastian Pinera, top right, cheers as Mario Sepulveda Espina, with sunglasses, salutes after being rescued.

SANTIAGO // As Chile celebrated the rescue of 33 miners who had been trapped deep underground for more than two months, many worried about how a similar disaster could be avoided from happening again. "Nobody died this time but next time, maybe someone will," Eduardo Iturriaga, 20, said.

Like many of his compatriots, Mr Iturriaga, a history student at the Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano in Santiago, was overjoyed to see the men hauled to safety from their refuge 700 metres below ground in a copper and gold mine. Although impressed with the speed and efficiency of the rescue, he said the good news is being used to gloss over the poor standards in Chile's mining industry, the world's largest producer of copper.

Large corporations have world-class standards, but smaller companies such as San Esteban Primera, the owner of the San Jose mine that entombed the miners, are widely believed to have less-stringent standards. "The government has used this situation to cover the other problems they have. It should change," Mr Iturriaga said. Moments after the first miner had emerged from the San Jose mine early yesterday, Sebastian Pinera, the country's president, addressed the concerns about safety.

"We will change the ways of doing things, because a country that wants to be developed must respect the rights of their workers," he said on live television. The mine where the men had been trapped since August 5 will also remain shut until it guarantees requisite safety conditions for its workers, Mr Pinera added. Many wonder why it took a near disaster to draw such a response. Manuel Carramona Guzman, 45, a statistician who works for the San Esteban company, which has been taken to court by 27 families of the trapped miners who claim it did not improve safety precautions following a series of accidents -including deaths - said signs of an imminent collapse were obvious.

"The mountain is telling you that something is going to happen," Mr Guzman said. "The miners said it was dangerous." Andy King, the national coordinator for health and safety at United Steelworkers, the Toronto-based North American trade union, said: "This mine collapse was totally preventable. It was eerily predictable. If you think about it this way, what is a place under ground doing with only one entrance in and one exit out?"

To improve mine standards, he said, the government should take full responsibility of health and safety laws, apply stiffer punishments for companies that knowingly violate laws, including jail time, and to join the International Labour Organization. "Do those three things and the risk of something like the San Jose mine tragedy happening again goes down dramatically," Mr King said. While the mine in San Jose was said to be notoriously dangerous, there has been criticism of working conditions for miners across the country and worker protests are frequent in the country.

"Even if the copper is called 'the richness of Chile,' everybody knew about the poor conditions," said Fernando Gonzalez, 29, a manager for Permanz Fruit Chile in Rancagua. "Every two years we face strikes in the mines or other major scandals related to work conditions and other issues." But for the 33 men who brought the world's attention to mining in Chile, they may never have to work again as they receive offers to tell their stories, write books and make feature media appearances.

The family of Victor Segovia, 48, who was the one miner to keep a log during the ordeal, are aware that the diary will be worth a lot. They told a Dutch reporter at the mine that they have already received several offers for the manuscript, both from local and foreign publishers. There has been talk of a movie and offers to appear on television as well. But Mr Segovia's brother Pedro said he thinks his brother will just want quiet time with his family when he emerges from the mine.

"I think for the moment he will refuse any contact with the press," Pedro said. "He'll want to rest, be with his family and think about what he's going to do with his life." foreign.desk@thenational.ae