Looking Back on the 2010 Chilean Mine Disaster: What Have We Learned?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nearly a decade ago, a major crisis riveted the world: in 2010, a cave-in at a copper mine in the Atacama Desert of Chile trapped 33 men 700 meters underground.

The men, trapped more than two thousand feet below the surface and three miles from the mine’s entrance, were alive but in desperate straits: they could not escape. The world watched to see if they could be rescued.

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The story would have a happy ending; after nearly three months underground, miraculously, all the men would be rescued and brought up to daylight once more.

After ten years, however, it’s a good time to look back and ask: what did we learn from this event? What caused the collapse, what changes have been made in mining practices to prevent it again, and how have the miners been affected by their very long and traumatic stay underground?

A Review of the Accident

On August 5, 2010, geological instability caused a cave-in at the Copiopo gold and copper mine in northern Chile. The 121-year-old mine had received previous warnings about this instability, and the San Esteban Mining Company, which operated the mine, had a history of fines and accidents on the job site.

The collapse happened in a spiral shaft that led to the deepest parts of the excavation. Miners nearer the surface escaped, but those working in the deepest parts were unable to pass through the rock-fall that blocked the helical roadway. The trapped miners initially attempted to escape through a series of straight air shafts, but the ladders that should have been there (as required by safety codes) were missing.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When the plan to escape via ventilation shafts failed, Luis Urzua, the duty shift supervisor, gathered his men in a room underground and organized them and their resources. They then settled in to pray and wait for rescue.

That rescue was slow in coming, as thousands around the world worked feverishly to find the best and safest way to get all 33 men up to the surface. In the end, however, it did happen. All the men survived. While the accident was a disaster, the rescue mission was a success. At this point in history, we can now look back and ask, what did we learn from all of it?

The Importance of Enabling Hope

In the face of what seem like overwhelming odds, both the victims of an accident and the rescuers have to feel that there is hope.  If the miners below ground had given up, it would have been too easy for them to succumb to exposure, fatigue or other medical problems. Those working on the rescue could also have slowed down or even become immobilized when confronted by the overwhelming complexity of the problem.

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In the case of Chile, the nation’s political leaders did a good job of setting a hopeful tone for workers and citizens, and the newly elected president found just the right person to work at the site, Andre Sougarret, to direct and encourage the rescue team from above. Below the ground, shift supervisor Luis Urzua worked hard to maintain an atmosphere of level-headedness and humor in the mine, keeping his cool and holding everyone together in hope.

The Need to Take Responsibility

The event in Chile turned out to be a true victory, not only for the miners and their families, but also for the Chilean government for their handling of the disaster. Why? Well, in large part because they stepped up and took control and responsibility right away.

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In today’s society, often big organizations and leaders are loath to take the risk of taking on the responsibility for something that could go badly. However, think about how it would have looked if Chile hadn’t acted and the miners had died. It would have been similar to the situation with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In this case, the government acted, showed compassion and control, and then was the beneficiary of great press when the situation resolved with a happy ending.

The Importance of Communication

Finally, one message that is related to both of the above lessons is about communication. In the case of this disaster, the government was open and transparent, proactively using social media to update families and the world on the situation of the miners. This gave the impression that they were not trying to cover up facts or make themselves look better.

Photo: WIkimedia Commons

This communication and open access also let everyone join in the moment when the miners were rescued. It was a win for everyone: the government, the families, and the miners themselves. The transparency kept the pressure on the agencies working to rescue them and created an incentive for all to work smoothly.

Some governments and businesses may feel that complete control, security, and secrecy are best, but the lessons of the Chilean mine disaster suggest that open transparency, hope, and responsibility can create the best outcome for all.