Workers had asked to leave mine three hours before collapse
[Translation of an article from La Tercera of Santiago, Chile, for October 19. See original article here.]
by Carlos Verguera and Ivonne Toro
To speak of coincidence and surprises does not fit well with this story. One of the 33 miners, military veteran Juan Illanes, from Chillán, has declared that at 11 in the morning of Thursday, August 5, three hours before the collapse that burried him and his workmates alive for almost 70 days, they notified those in charge at Minera San Esteban that the rumbling in the mine was louder than usual.
And further, according to Illanes they asked for permission to be taken to the surface, which was denied them, specifically by the mine’s manager of operations, Carlos Pinilla.
Illanes’s accusations, made to Congressman Carlos Vilches, a member of the chamber of deputies investigating committee, convinced him to contact several other members of the group to ask that they testify before congress.
“He told me that at 11 they began to hear very loud noises. They asked to leave and they were denied permission. They (the miners) believe there was negligence on the part of the owners and managers. The conditions and the risk were already known, but these gentlemen (acted) as though it were just some crumbling… The reasonable thing would have been to get them out,” said Vilches, who also confirmed that several miners have agreed to testify.
Illanes’a version was confirmed by his workmates Jimmy Sánchez and Omar Reygadas. “The mine was making noise and they left us inside, but I can’t talk any more about that,” Sánchez answered.
“I was in the loader when it happened. Afterwards I heard about the call. It must have been the shift supervisor (Luis Urzúa) or the foreman (Florencio Avalos). One of them got in touch with Pinilla. He knew very well what was happening in the mine, so he can’t deny it. It had been rumbling for several days. I will appear before the investigating committee. It’s my duty,” Reygadas added.
Cristián Barra, advisor to the Ministry of the Interior, who participated in the rescue operation, recognized signs of imminent collapse. “The opinion of the Codelco [Corporación Nacional del Cobre – National Copper Corporation] experts is that this did not happen from one minute to the next, but that there were necessarily signs that there could be a collapse,” Barra asserted.
To say that the San José mine “crumbled” is nothing new. Lilianette Ramírez herself, wife of Mario Gómez, “el Navega’o,” the rough miner who tried to escape by climbing cables through the chimney hours after the collapse, told how her husband repeated, again and again, that he was afraid to die in the mineshaft before that fatal shift.
This time, nevertheless, the crumbling turned into a hail of rocks and soil. The mine was giving a warning that no one, except the miners, seem to be listening to.
Miguel Valenzuela, formerly a miner in the San José deposit and a friend of Jorge Galleguillos, “el Galleta,” another of the 33, told how the crumbling and the noise were incredibly violent. By Wednesday the fourth, he added, a truck driver for one of the contractors warned Pinilla himself of the imminent collapse of the deposit. “Nobody listened to him. And that despite the fact that about a half a ton of dirt and rocks had fallen on his truck. The boxes – the wall rocks – were exploding every few minutes,” Valenzuela explained.
Rescuer Manuel González, former soccer player for O’Higgins and Arica, who was the first to descend on the day of the rescue, also told in an interview on TVN of his surprise at not seeing fortifications in the mineshaft.
Pinilla, together with mine manager Pedro Simunovic and the owners of the San Esteban mining company, Marcelo Kemeny and Alejandro Bohn, were cited formally at the beginning of the month for the crime of grave damage done to miner Gino Cortés, whose leg was amputated after a fall from a platform last July 3.