Chile mine disaster a second blow to family roiled by earthquake months before

Rescue operation to save 33 miners, trapped for more than two months in a collapsed copper mine, reaches the final stages.
By Bradley Brooks
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 7:16 PM

COPIAPO, CHILE - It's a tale of two disasters, an unbelievable misfortune for a family. But this is the reality for Carola Narvaez.

Her family survived Chile's big earthquake six months ago, but the temblor destroyed the shipyard where her husband worked. That forced him to take a job four months ago in a copper and gold mine.

Now he is trapped far underground along with 32 other miners, more than three weeks after an underground landslide left them with no way out.

The story of the twin disasters is also the story of the challenges the poor still face in Chile, despite the country's two decades as Latin America's economic darling.

Chile's average annual per capita growth rate of 4.1 percent over the past two decades makes it the most successful of all Latin American nations, according to the World Bank. Yet 14 percent of the country's 16 million people still live in poverty, the bank says.

Some of them risk their lives in the mines of the Atacama Desert - home to mineral wealth that makes up 40 percent of Chile's export income - for the chance to earn as much as $1,000 a month.

Narvaez's husband, Raul Bustos, is a heavy-machinery mechanic. Six months ago Friday, the family was living in the port city of Talcahuano, 300 miles south of the capital. Raul worked for the Chilean shipbuilder Asmar.

Like most Chileans, the couple were sound asleep when one of the most powerful earthquakes registered in a century struck the central coast Feb. 27.

What the earthquake did not knock down, the tsunami it triggered washed away. Ships in Asmar's yards were pushed into the street and the builder's operations destroyed.

Having to support his wife and two small children, Bustos looked to northern Chile, where mines dot the barren landscape. Two months later he found his way to the San Jose mine, one of hundreds of midsize operations digging into the rocky, red earth in search of copper, gold and other minerals.

Narvaez stayed behind with their children, 5-year-old Maria Paz and 3-year-old Vicente. When word arrived of the Aug. 5 mine collapse, she left the children with her parents and rushed to the site, where she has camped out since.

Narvaez said her hopes have been bolstered by a 45-minute video the miners sent up the borehole, as well as the notes she and her husband have exchanged.

She read one of them aloud.

"My little thing, you should know the words you sent me made me cry," her husband wrote on a piece of smudged, lined paper. "They have always been with me, along with my God who gave me strength to overcome anxiety."

Relatives of the trapped miners repeat the same answer when asked what drove their men to toil underground in a small mine that does not have the same safety regulations as larger operations.

"There is plenty of work outside of mining in the Atacama, mostly in agriculture," said Lila Ramirez, whose 63-year-old husband, Mario Gomez, is also trapped in the mine. "But a man wants to work in the mine because it is a way to improve the economic situation of a home, to create a life of dignity."

- Associated Press

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