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article imageChile: Two mining accidents with significantly different outcomes

By Igor I. Solar     Oct 14, 2010 in World
Santiago - The successful rescue of the 33 miners has brought joy and pride to Chileans and renewed calls for further regulations and controls. It has also reminded Chileans of the terrible tragedy occurred in the country in 1945 when 355 miners lost their life.
The accident at the San José mine
The recent mining tragedy in Chile had a happy ending. Much better than expected when 70 days ago it was learned that 33 miners had been trapped by a landslide almost 700 meters underground. The initial available information indicated that if they had survived the cave-in, they could have air, water and some food to sustain life for three days. Rescue efforts began immediately, but difficulties were encountered. After nearly three weeks it was yet unknown what had happened to the miners and if they were still alive.
After 17 days of incessant work, contact was achieved and it was ascertained they had survived by holding strength and discipline and by wisely rationing the scarce food resources. The rescue work concluded yesterday has brought about a tremendous sense of pride and patriotism among Chileans and encouraged the authorities to improve labor legislation and control measures in one of the main economic activities in the country.
All the rescued miners and President Sebastián Piñera at the Copiapó Regional Hospital a day afte...
All the rescued miners and President Sebastián Piñera at the Copiapó Regional Hospital a day after the rescue.
Government of Chile
Statistics show that better regulation and more control are definitely needed. In the past 10 years (2000-2009) the death rate by accidents in the mining industry in Chile is 34 workers (*). The successful rescue of these 33 miners prevented a significant increase in the death statistics for 2010.
The outcome of the accident at the San José gold and copper mine means that Chile has entered into the records of accidents where miners were successfully rescued from the largest depth after being trapped the longest time.
The Tragedy of the Smoke at El Teniente
Unfortunately Chile also has another record that is substantially less positive. In 1945 occurred in Chile the world’s largest mining tragedy in the history of metal mining. In that accident 355 workers died in the “El Teniente” copper mine. The number of casualties in this accident is only exceeded by the tragedy that took place on February 26, 1942 in a coal mine in Honkeiko, China, that claimed the lives of 1549 men.
View of a fraction of the 355 tombs of the miners that died in 1945 at El Teniente Copper MIne  Chil...
View of a fraction of the 355 tombs of the miners that died in 1945 at El Teniente Copper MIne, Chile, in the world's worst metal mining tragedy.
The accident at El Teniente mine, then owned by American Braden Copper Company, became known as the "tragedy of the smoke." Early in the morning of June 19, 1945 around 1500 miners had begun their shift when a fire broke out inside a supplies' warehouse. The flames spread to drums of oil and there was an explosion. The smoke, heavy in carbon monoxide, filled the tunnels where a large number of miners were trapped. For three days rescue crews worked around the clock, but unfortunately their efforts were fruitless: 355 miners were killed and 747 others were injured.
The impact caused by the horrific tragedy in the community forced the authorities to innovate and introduce in the mining industry safety protocols similar to those practiced in the United States and Europe.
From that moment on, the mentality of the mine owners and the working habits of the miners drastically changed. Braden Copper Company compensated the families of the dead and took care of the injured. It also developed in the nearby city of Rancagua a settlement for the families of the 355 dead miners which became known as “the widow’s village”.
The concepts of risk prevention and safety management were introduced and a Department of Mine Safety was created. The improvements were so significant that following the accident El Teniente obtained international safety awards for 14 consecutive years. At the central government level, the tragedy forced the reform or prompt promulgation of several laws, such as the Occupational Accidents Act, which Congress had been delaying for many years.
New and stricter regulations will result from what happened in the San José mine in Copiapó. This probably will not end accidents. But hopefully it will help to reduce the frequency and severity of catastrophes and the loss of lives in a high risk industry.
"Never again in our country we are going to allow working conditions so unsafe and so inhumane as at the San José mine." President of Chile Sebastián Piñera, Oct. 13, 2010.
(*) Data from Chile's Ministry of Labour.
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