Snatched from the Earth’s jaws

Every geoscientist will salute the fortitude and bravery of the 33 Chilean miners rescued from a refuge 700 m below ground, that of the 5 volunteer rescuers who descended the 80 cm shaft, not knowing whether it was safe and the skills of voluntary engineers whose drill managed to find the small refuge, despite its depth. Many geologists have been in underground mines, though only a minority have worked in them, but all admire the mental and physical resilience of the 33. Trapped by the caved-in access tunnel on 5 August, the miners faced and survived 17 days with fading lamps and tiny supplies of food and liquids. The final rescue came with remarkable swiftness during 13-14 October. Apart from one with a chest infection all seemed little the worse for wear. The growing tension during the rescue was almost palpable, even at a distance of more than 11 000 km: would the narrow tunnel collapse; would the rescue shuttle jam? The likelihood of either grew with each rescue.

The rise in gold and copper price since the global crash of 2008 has seen the reopening of dozens of once uneconomic mines, kept for years on a ‘care and maintenance’ basis. Not knowing when the metal-price boom would collapse, mine owners have rushed to restart operations, paying locally premium wages to attract miners. The San José mine near Copiapo, was one such mine, whose fabric had deteriorated after years of neglect. It would be unsurprising if another disaster, with less happy outcomes, occurred during the current metal-mining boom.

Added 26/11/2010. So soon after such a victory over being buried alive for so long, it is especially tragic to learn that the methane explosion of 19 November in New Zealand’s largest coalmine at Pike River on the South Island killed 29 miners. They were declared dead after a second explosion on 24 November. Today a third blast ripped through the mine not long before a memorial service was to be held, vindicating the decision not to send in rescue parties as soon as the initial explosion took place. Inevitably, there will be a major inquiry into how such a build-up of explosive gas could possibly have gone unnoticed.

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