Behind the Miracle: How 33 Miners Survived 17 Days, 5 Miles Underground

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Hector Retamal / AP

It’s been 17 days since a copper and gold mine in Chile collapsed burying 33 miners in the depths below. Rescuers tunneled down seven times, hoping for some sign of survivors. On August 22 they got their wish as they pulled to the surface a note that triumphantly exclaimed, “We are fine — the 33 of us in the shelter.”

John Urosek, the chief of mine emergency operations for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, spoke to NewsFeed about how the miners managed to survive a long and lonely 17 days some 4.5 miles below ground.

What is the emergency shelter like?
The area that they’re in is a little different than the type of shelter that you’ve probably heard about here in the U.S. in the coal industry where the shelters are relatively small, maybe 20 or 30 feet long, five foot high. From the reports I’ve heard, they had access to a backhoe and a truck which would lead you to believe that there is at least enough room for that. Typical shelters in metal mines are usually higher, at least in this country, you’re probably 20 to 40 foot wide and 20 to 40 foot high. So as long as they are in a big enough area they would have enough oxygen to survive.

So that made for a larger air supply, but I’ve also heard that gold and copper mines are not as harmful to begin with?
I don’t want to say they are less healthful, but one of the issues we have in a coal mine, of course, is you typically have methane. And when methane comes into the environment, it’s displaces the oxygen. Also in a coal mine we have the problem of what they call blackdamp, or carbon dioxide, and in a metal mine you don’t have that. So the oxygen itself in a metal mine is only going to be depleted by the people breathing themselves. So in that respect they’re better off because of the atmosphere they’d be breathing in.

I’ve read that the initial food and air supplies in the emergency shelter were only supposed to last 48 hours. How might they have managed to survive for 17 days?
You can sustain for a period of time as long as you have water and, of course, I’m sure they had some food with them so they must have been able to conserve that. But I’m always going to say they’re lucky. The fact that they must be in a bigger area is very helpful to them because obviously as they breathe, they consume the oxygen in the air — so they must be in a big enough area that all 33 of them could breathe for 17 days and still be OK.

Now that they’ve made contact and can send down food, water and oxygen supplies, is it very possible that all 33 will continue to survive?
Yes. I guess it’s not much different than astronauts. Once you have contact with them and way to maintain supplies, it’s just a process of trying to get them out and get them out carefully.