AFP/Getty ImagesThe ramp, the main tunnel in the San José Mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert, begins about a mile above sea level near the top of a round, rocky mountain. From the 16-by-16-foot entrance, the Ramp corkscrews into the mountain through a series of gradually narrowing switchbacks. Men driving dump trucks, front loaders, and pickup trucks use the winding path to gather minerals collected by the workers who mine small passageways for ore-bearing rock.
On the morning of August 5, 2010, some men are working almost 2,500 feet below the surface, loading freshly blasted ore into a dump truck. Another group works about a hundred feet above them, fortifying a passageway, while still others are resting in the Refuge, a room carved out of the rock some 2,300 feet down. The Refuge, with its cinder block walls and heavy metal door, was supposed to be a shelter in the event of an emergency, but it also serves as a break room; fresh air is pumped in from the surface to offer respite from the heat.
A little after 1:00 p.m., Franklin Lobos is driving a pickup truck down to the Refuge, where a group of miners waits for a ride up to the surface for lunch. Another miner, Jorge Galleguillos, is riding with Lobos when, at about 2,000 feet below the surface, he suddenly says, “Did you see that? A butterfly.”
“What? A butterfly? No, it wasn’t,” Lobos answers. “It was a white rock.”
“It was a butterfly,” Galleguillos insists.
Lobos can’t believe a butterfly would flutter this far down in the dark. But he doesn’t argue. Suddenly, the two men hear a massive explosion. The passageway fills with dust as the Ramp collapses behind them, hitting the men as a roar of sound, as if a massive skyscraper is crashing.
Below them, the blast wave throws open the door to the Refuge, and the miners waiting on the Ramp for the lunch truck run into the room. Soon about two dozen men are huddled inside as the mountain caves in on itself. After a few minutes, as the noise dies down, the men decide to run for safety, heading out to the Ramp to try to scramble to the surface.
Luis Urzúa, the shift manager, and Mario Sepúlveda, who is operating a front loader, are near the Refuge when they hear a crash and feel the pressure wave that passes through the tunnel. Florencio Ávalos, Urzúa’s assistant, pulls up in a pickup truck and tells them that the mine is collapsing.
The three men quickly drive to the Refuge to pick up anyone there on lunch break, but the room is empty. Then they head downhill because hey know there are workers deeper in the mine. It’s Urzúa’s responsibility to get every man out.
About 150 feet below the Refuge, Mario Gómez and Omar Reygadas, two mining veterans, are loading gold-and-copper-laden rock into the back of a truck. They both feel a burst of pressure, but Reygadas just thinks the shift supervisor has ordered some routine blasting. When their truck is loaded, Gómez begins to drive toward the surface but gets only a few hundred feet before hitting a thick cloud of dust. Soon he can see only a few feet in front of his vehicle. He points his steering wheel straight, driving blindly. Then Urzúa appears in front of him, gesturing for them to stop.
Gómez and Reygadas jump into the pickup, and Ávalos manages to drive back up to the Refuge. The men trying to escape during a lull in the explosions have now retreated to the Refuge. When they see the truck, they rush toward it, squeezing into the cab and jumping into the back. “Go! Go! Let’s get out of here!” At the wheel, Ávalos heads toward the surface.
The truck sags under the weight of the men. When the dust once again becomes too thick to see through, Mario Sepúlveda gets out and walks ahead with his flashlight, guiding Ávalos forward. They meet up with several mechanics who have been working higher up in the mine, and they, too, climb aboard. Advancing farther into the dust, they meet the truck coming down with Franklin Lobos and Jorge Galleguillos.
Sepúlveda shines his light on the two men and sees the blood-drained look of mortal fear. Lobos and Galleguillos recount the collapse they just escaped. Then Urzúa orders them to turn around, and they all head higher up the spiral, more debris appearing on the roadway of the Ramp, as if they are getting closer to the scene of a battle.
Eventually rocks block their way, and the men get out and walk. Adrenaline and a vision of the midday sun at the top of the Ramp urge them up the arduous climb. They follow the lights of their headlamps and flashlights until the beams strike the gray surface of a stone slab. After the dust settles, the full size of the obstacle becomes apparent. The Ramp is blocked, from top to bottom and all the way across, by a flat, smooth sheet of the mountain, as tall as a 45-story building and weighing 700,000 tons.
NO WAY OUT
At five feet three inches tall, Alex Vega is the smallest of the miners. He slithers on his stomach and stares into a tiny opening beneath the immense gray stone. Vega tells the men he thinks he can squeeze through.
“No,” Urzúa says. He thinks it’s a crazy thing to do.
But Vega insists, and finally Urzúa tells him, “Just be careful.”
Vega squeezes his small frame into a crevice of jagged rock. With his lamp in hand, he crawls about ten feet into the crack, until he can advance no farther.
“There’s no way through,” he announces after he crawls out.
For some of the older miners, the sight of the stone and Vega’s words bring an overwhelming sense of finality. Some have been trapped in mines before, by rock falls that a bulldozer could clear in a couple of hours. But this gray wall is different.
Galleguillos thinks he’ll never see his new grandson, and he feels tears running down his cheeks. Gómez, who lost two fingers in a previous accident, realizes that he’s pushed his luck too far—first his fingers, now his life.
The trapped miners turn their backs on the curtain of stone and split into two groups. Eight men search the mine’s matrix of tunnels for a passageway to the surface. The main purpose of these shafts is to allow air, water, and electricity to flow into the mine. They are supposed to be fitted with ladders to provide an escape route, but the San José Mine is a shoestring operation. The owners have cut costs by ignoring some of the safety measures, meaning only a few of the chimneys have ladders.
The rest of the group heads back to the Refuge. As the two groups split up, Florencio Ávalos, the second in command, quietly tells one of the older miners, “Take care of the provisions. Don’t let the miners eat them yet, because we may be trapped for days.” He speaks softly because he doesn’t want to panic the men.
At the Refuge, the miners note that the connections to the surface—the electricity, the intercom system, the flow of water and compressed air—have been cut. The first few hours pass slowly, punctuated by rumbling stomachs and the continuing thunder of rocks falling somewhere in the dark spaces beyond the weak, warm light of their headlamps.
Meanwhile, the eight-man escape expedition drives a jumbo lifter to the chimney, opening a hole in the ceiling. Raising his head into the hole, Sepúlveda is surprised to see a ladder, built from pieces of rebar drilled into the rock. He begins to climb, with Raúl Bustos behind him. The dust makes it hard to breathe, and the walls are slippery with humidity. Halfway up, one of the rebar rungs breaks off, and the metal strikes Sepúlveda in the front teeth, sending a rush of blood into his mouth. He shakes his head in pain but keeps going.
Sepúlveda reaches the top of the chimney and sweeps the beam of his flashlight across the blackness. He stands up, and when Bustos reaches the top, they walk up the Ramp, hoping that after the next curve in the spiral, the route to the top will be open. Instead their light beams strike the shiny, smooth wall blocking their way. Sepúlveda feels the hope draining from his body, leaving him with a cold, clear vision of what is happening to them.
The two men turn and walk downhill, past the chimney they just scaled, and go around another curve to find the same gray wall blocking their path again. When they look for the next chimney opening, the one that might lead them up to a higher level, their flashlights reveal that in this one, there is no ladder at all.
“This way isn’t going to work,” Sepúlveda says. “What are we going to tell los niños?”
“Let’s tell them the truth,” Bustos says.