Chile Steps Up Search for Trapped Miners as Deadline Looms

  • Air for the two miners is estimated to run out in three days
  • A second drill is expected to reach area in coming hours

The search for two men buried in a Patagonian gold mine may not be attracting the kind of global attention as the miraculous rescue of 33 miners in Chile seven years ago, but it’s no less dramatic.

To begin with, time is running out.

Enrique Ojeda and Jorge Sanchez, trapped in the Mandalay Resources Corp.-owned mine since June 9, have an estimated three days of air left. And while the depths are less than the San Jose mine, technically the rescue is more difficult, said Felipe Matthews, a geologist who advised the Chilean Mining Ministry in 2010 and is also working on this search. The hope is that the two found their way into a refuge after a section of the mine collapsed and tunnels flooded with water from a nearby lagoon. 

“If I’m here it’s because I have faith that we can achieve a similar miracle than the one we had in San Jose,” Matthews said Thursday in an interview.

The San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, on Oct. 13, 2010.

Photographer: Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images

In 2010, the world’s attention turned to northern Chile’s Atacama desert where a small copper mine collapsed and 33 workers were trapped at a depth of 720 meters (2,360 feet) for 69 days.

In Chile, the largest copper exporter, mining accidents aren’t rare, although they have been declining over the last few years. In 2016, 18 people died and 17 were injured in mining-related accidents, according to the Mining Ministry.

‘Only Hope’

To rescue the two miners in Mandalay’s Mina Delia 2, drillers need to go through 40 meters of unstable mud and sediment to reach the refuge, at a depth of about 200 meters. Three drill rigs were operating as of late Thursday, Chile’s state emergency service said on its website.

"Our only hope is that the cave-in blocked the lower levels of the mine from the flooding," Matthews said from Chile Chico, a few kilometers away from the mine. "If the lower levels are dry, then there’s hope. But if they’re wet, then that’s it, because the refuge is not waterproof."

Chilean authorities and the company are focusing their efforts on isolating the area where water from the lagoon is filtering into the mine by building a 300-meter wall around it. They are also trying to deviate the stream of water that feeds the lagoon. Efforts to pump water out of the mine have been unsuccessful so far, as it is still connected to the lagoon.

"We will be severe in the investigation that will determine if the company is responsible for the accident in Cerro Bayo’s Mina Delia, and whether it was aware of possible vulnerabilities in the mine," Mining Minister Aurora Williams told reporters on Monday.

No Warning

Delia 2 is part of the Cerro Bayo district in southern Chile, where Toronto-based Mandalay has been exploring for gold and silver since 2010. In 2014, it was extracting 1,400 metric tons of ore a day, according to its website. The stock has plunged 19 percent since the accident.

"There were no indications that this was going to happen,” Chief Operating Officer Dominic Duffy told reporters in Santiago on Monday. “If there had been any, we would have halted operations. Our focus now is on finding these two workers and after this we will investigate and inform about the results."

Unlike the copper-rich Atamaca, southern Chile is humid and often hit by heavy rains and snow. Presence of water in mines there is common, Matthews said, with operations often pumping water from the tunnels as they operate.

"With these underground deposits, you start from the top and dig down," Matthews said. "Even if tunnels at the top are stable when you have finished with them, there is a possibility that water filtered and generated a cavern that ultimately collapsed."

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