Oct. 13, 2022

The Chilean Mining Accident

The Chilean Mining Accident

October 13, 2010. After a record 69 days underground, 33 trapped miners are saved by a rescue team in Copiapó, Chile, concluding the worst mining accident in Chilean history.


Cold Open

It’s August 5th, 2010, in the Atacama Desert near Copiapó, Chile.

Franklin Lobos drives a pickup truck through the cavernous depths of a copper mine, 2,000 feet beneath the surface of the earth. He’s on his way to collect a group of miners and bring them to the surface for lunch. Franklin stares ahead blankly, his headlights beaming into pitch darkness.

As he drives, Franklin hears a familiar sound: the haunting groan of rocks shifting deep inside the mountain.  The more superstitious miners have a name for this phenomenon. They say it’s the sound of the mountain weeping.

Franklin slips the truck into second gear as he follows the mine’s main passageway around a corner. And all the while, under the whine of the truck's motor, the gnashing of gears in the crunch of tires, the sound of mountain weeping fills the dark passageway as far underneath the surface.

But then, out of nowhere, a sonorous boom reverberates off the walls of the tunnel. Franklin strains his ears - this isn't a sound he recognizes. Then, a split second later... a massive explosion rips through the mine... shattering the glass in the truck’s rear window and knocking the wind out of Franklin.

The miner spins around and squints into the darkness. Slabs of rock tumble from the ceiling of the passage. Franklin realizes with a sickening jolt: the entire mineshaft is collapsing.Franklin is immobilized with panic.

But the sound of other miners' screams snaps Franklin out of his daze. He wrenches the truck into first gear… and tears off down the mineshaft, desperately fleeing the tidal wave of rock and debris surging towards him.

On August 5th, 2010, a gargantuan slab of rock broke off a mountain and sliced through the San Jose copper mine.  Franklin will be just one of thirty-three workers trapped by the worst mining accident in Chilean history.

And soon, the world’s attention will turn to Chile, and to the thirty-three miners fighting for their lives. In the end, it will take a herculean effort on the part of Chile’s government and emergency services - and an inspiring feat of will-power from the miners themselves - to see the entire crew brought to safety on October 13th, 2010.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is October 13th, 2010: The Chilean Mining Accident.

Act One: The Collapse

It’s the morning of August 5th, 2010; just hours before the collapse of the San Jose mine.

Fifty-four-year-old Luis Urzua sits on a bus as it trundles through the Atacama Desert. He gazes at the scenery streaking past the window, a Martian landscape of rust-colored hills studded with mining apparatus.

In Chile, mining is the national industry. Precious metals like gold, silver, and copper constitute over half of the country’s exports, and mining them provides jobs for more than 200,000 people like Luis. Luis is the shift supervisor at the San Jose mine, the person responsible for ensuring the safety of his fellow miners.

It’s an important job. Mining is exceedingly dangerous, with accidents occurring every year. And the San Jose mine is notorious for its poor safety standards. Over a hundred years of drilling have left the mountainside weak and prone to cave-ins. To avoid investing in costly safety precautions, the mining company who owns the San Jose mine simply raised the miners’ pay 20% above the national average in compensation for the risk. For Luis and his co-workers, that extra income enables them to support their families, even if it means risking their own lives.

So Luis takes his job as supervisor seriously. He only started working at the mine three months ago. He hasn’t yet earned the trust of the older miners. But Luis is eager to turn that around. As a member of the senior management team, Luis doesn’t have to take the bus with the rank-and-file miners. But he chooses to. He wants his men to know he’s one of them. Because, in the mine, trust between the men is essential.

As the bus arrives at its destination, Luis disembarks with his coworkers, shielding his eyes from the desert sun. He steps through the mine’s single entrance - a narrow hole in the side of the mountain. Then, he climbs into his Toyota pickup truck and begins the descent down the spiraling metal service road into the mine.

As he drives, Luis listens to the sounds of the mountain: the distant rumbles and ominous groans. Luis frowns. He’s used to hearing the mountain weeping - as the miners call it. But he’s never heard the mountain weep this loudly - or for this long. Despite his concerns, Luis continues making his rounds.

A few hours later, Luis heads down into the depths of the mine. At more than 2,000 feet beneath the surface, the temperature is a sweltering 98 degrees. Luis wipes sweat from his brow as he steps out of the truck. He’s come to check on a miner named Mario Sepulveda. Mario operates a front-loader – a type of industrial digger. Luis finds the younger miner sitting in his front loader, scooping up rocks flecked with copper.

But as he waves at Mario to get his attention, there’s a sudden, dull boom from somewhere in the mine. Luis is struck by a powerful blast of compressed air and nearly knocked to his feet.

Trying to keep his footing, gasping for breath, a pair of headlights abruptly appears through the dust cloud. It’s his second-in-command, Florencio. Florencio yells that the mine is collapsing. And quickly, Luis and Mario jump inside Florencio’s pickup, begin the drive to the Refuge – a fortified shelter where the miners retreat when there’s a collapse.

But when Luis opens the door of the Refuge, he finds the room empty. By now, most of them should have made it to the Refuge but his men are nowhere to be seen. Luis glances upward, his eyes filled with worry. He can still hear the mountain collapsing above his head, and feel the walls of the mine trembling. Someone below, his men are missing, and it’s Luis' responsibility to find them.

Luis instructs Florencio to drive deeper into the mine, to search for the rest of the men. And soon, all the miners are accounted for - except one. Luis, Florencio, and Mario continue on their downward descent, and eventually, they see the dim glow of a miner’s headlamp in the tunnel. When they pull up alongside him, Luis sees the man is shaking with fear, like he’s seen a ghost. Luis drags him into the pickup, and as he does, the passage fills with an ear-splitting roar – another massive explosion, even bigger than the first. Somewhere in the mine, something colossal has just fallen.

After returning to the Refuge, Luis does a quick headcount of his men. There are thirty-three men here, including himself. Mario scrambles up the ventilation shaft to assess the extent of the blockage. When he returns, he’s ashen-faced. It isn’t a pile of rocks blocking the main passageway; it’s one huge solid slab - like a guillotine has sliced through the ramp leading out of the mine.

Luis looks at his men. He can see the fear etched into their faces. He knows that in situations like this, hierarchy can lead to resentment. So Luis makes a symbolic gesture. He removes his white helmet - the marker of his superior status. The miners take note. Luis’ decision isn’t just symbolic - it’s unprecedented. It’s a gesture that says: if we want to get out of here alive, we will have to work together - as equals.

But making it out of the mine will not be easy. The feat will test the men both mentally and physically. And the miners will not be able to do it on their own. After hours of being trapped, their predicament will capture the nation’s attention, and help will finally be on the way.

Act Two: The Rescue

It’s the morning of August 6th, 2010; 68 days before the Chilean miners are rescued.

In Santiago, Chile, Laurence Golborne is abruptly awoken by his cell phone buzzing on the nightstand. Still half-asleep, the 49-year-old politician reaches over and stares at the screen. It’s a text alert that reads: “COLLAPSE AT SAN JOSE MINE; 33 MISSING.” Golborne sits bolt upright, suddenly wide awake.

Golborne is Chile’s newly appointed minister of mining. Before entering politics, he was a successful CEO of a large retail company. When he got the new minister of mining's job five months ago, many miners were skeptical. To them, Golborne is emblematic of the out-of-touch suits who run their industry, a man who cares more about the stock market than the plight of the average miner.

But Golborne is aware of his reputation and eager to prove his naysayers wrong. As minister of mining, he’s in charge of the rescue effort to free the trapped miners. It’s his first big challenge, and he doesn’t want to fail. Quickly, the minister leaps out of bed and into action. Soon, he’s in the backseat of a chauffeured SUV snaking its way up the mountainside toward the San Jose mine.

When he arrives, Golborne finds the site crowded with people. It’s been 36 hours since the collapse, and the miners’ families have no idea if their loved ones are alive. They’ve established a temporary village on the surface, a settlement of canvas tents and supply stores called Camp Esperanza - or Camp Hope.

Golborne approaches a group of police officers huddled around the mine entrance and asks them how they plan to access the miners. The team leader informs him that they intend to climb down the ventilation shaft using ropes. Golborne nods and is ushered away to the tent serving as the command Headquarters.

But before he can even reach the tent, Golborne hears raised voices. He turns to see the miners’ families surging towards him, anguished faces demanding to know if the miners are still alive. Golborne is speechless. He has sympathy for the families, but he doesn’t have answers. Not yet. He apologizes, then ducks inside the command tent.

Once inside, Golborne whips out his cell phone and dials the number of a drilling company. Golborne might not know anything about mining, but he’s experienced when it comes to logistics - and he doesn’t want to let the miners’ families down. He places an order for a heavy-duty industrial drill. Golborne knows that the police attempt to access the miners down the ventilation shaft might fail. If it does, they’ll need a backup plan. And Golborne intends to provide it.

A few hours later, the police rescuers return to the surface, shaking their heads with disappointment. Golborne rushes over asking what happened. One man says: “I’ve never seen a blockage like that. It’s huge.” Golborne asks if there was any sign of the miners, and the police rescuer replies in a weak voice: “No. There’s no way anyone could survive that rockfall.”

Golborne curses and turns away. Camera crews and reporters swarm around the shell-shocked police rescuers. Golborne doesn’t want the media to speculate about the miners’ deaths. So he swallows the lump in his throat, stands on a chair and makes the following announcement: “Attention, please! The initial rescue attempt was not successful, but we’re trying some other techniques to reach the miners.”

Golborne himself doesn’t actually think the miners are alive. But he can’t stop picturing the tear-streaked faces of the miners’ families. He knows that if this story is going to have a happy ending at all, it’s crucial they don’t give up hope.  Later that day, the drilling equipment arrives on-site, and a team of engineers starts pummeling the rock. Eight more drills are also deployed, and the surrounding desert echoes with the roar of hydraulic machinery.

Soon, the chief engineer of Chile’s largest state-owned mine arrives to serve as a tactical head of the rescue effort. Andre Sougarret has masterminded dozens of rescues in the past. But nothing on this scale. He knows the odds of this rescue effort succeeding are low.

When he reaches the site, Andre approaches the mine entrance and holds his hand above the rockfall. He feels a light breeze traveling through the cracks. And this means if the miners are still alive, at least they won’t suffocate. Andre suspects the miners will be sheltering in the Refuge - a fortified room more than 600 meters underground. If true, they probably have enough food and water to sustain themselves for a few weeks at most. Andre knows it’s a race against time. And they can’t waste a single second.

Given the density of the rock, it takes an entire day to drill 100 meters, and the drills often miss their target. Still, despite multiple false starts, Andre and his staff eventually make a breakthrough. After two weeks of non-stop drilling, the drill bit retracts from the earth covered in red spray paint and hand-written messages from the miners.

The drill has hit its target and found all thirty-three miners safe and well.

But despite the enormity of the breakthrough, and the joy of the miners’ families, it will be clear to Andre that this ordeal isn’t over. It could take 120 days for the drills to create a hole wide enough to lift the men through. And with the miners’ health rapidly declining, and the risk of another collapse always threatening, it's still unclear these thirty-three men will make it out of the mountain alive.

Act Three: The Reunion

It’s October 13th, 2010.

Shift supervisor Luis Urzua sits in his truck deep inside the collapsed San Jose mine. Luis’ face is haggard and darkened by a bristly beard. His skin is sallow from the lack of sunlight, and his body aches from months spent sleeping on a hard stone floor. But in Luis’ eyes, there's a glimmer of hope.

Luis and his fellow miners have been trapped underground for 69 days. The first two weeks were very tough. The miners had no idea if the rescue effort was underway to save them. And in the meantime, they were running low on provisions. Rationing had them down to one spoonful of canned tuna a day, washed down with a single sip of dirty water.

But after the rescuers reached the miners with their drills, things started looking up. Regular supplies of food, water, and medicine were sent down the mine, and the miners’ spirits began to lift. But their nightmare wasn’t over. It’s taken over a month for the engineers to drill a hole wide enough to lift them out. And as the time passed, the miners’ physical and mental health continued to worsen.

Today, the hole is finally ready for the miners to be lifted out. Their ordeal seems on the verge of a happy ending. But even now, Luis is concerned. The mountain is still rumbling and groaning. If the rocks shift even slightly, the hole could close up and crush whoever’s inside. But Luis doesn’t share these concerns with his men. Now is not the time for worst-case scenarios.

Soon, the first miner is strapped inside the metal capsule to be heaved out through the hole to the surface. The others wish him luck as the capsule is lifted by cables attached to a crane. It’s a painstakingly slow ascent through more than 2,000 feet of solid rock. But after 50 minutes, the miner reaches the surface, where a huge crowd has gathered to witness his rescue. 

One by one, the miners are lifted from the ground. And gradually, Luis starts to feel optimistic. He allows his thoughts to turn to the future, to his wife and children, and his life above ground. And finally, after more than 30 hours, all the other miners are rescued.

Finally, it’s Luis’ turn. He climbs inside the capsule, and soon, he emerges from the mountain too. He embraces his children, then his wife, wrapping her in a tearful embrace. Finally, their nightmare is over.

Following the disaster, Luis will retire from mining and turn his efforts to activism, fighting to improve the dangerous working conditions for miners all across Chile. But his story, the story of the 32 other miners, and the heroic effort to bring them safety will continue to captivate the world. Five years later, the Chilean Mining Incident will even be turned into a Hollywood movie, gripping audiences with the highs and lows of an incredible saga that was brought to an end when all 33 Chilean miners were rescued on October 13th, 2010.


Next onHistory Daily.October 14th, 1322. During the first war of Scottish independence, the Scots win a decisive victory over the English at the Battle of Old Byland. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.