LIMA, Peru – Tears rolled down the cheeks of Carlos Huamaní when he was rescued last week after spending seven days trapped underground alongside eight other miners at the Cabeza de Negro mine.
“I feel like I’ve been born again,” he said after the April 11 rescue. “I prayed every day for someone to rescue us.”
Huamaní and the eight other men were illegally mining for copper when two collapses in different sectors of the mine caused them to become trapped 180 meters (590 feet) underground, officials said.
“This moment, it’s like being reborn,” rescued miner Edwin Bellido said after a tearful reunion with his wife and two young daughters. “We went through some critical moments in there.”
But what happened at the Cabeza de Negro mine, located 325 kilometers (201 miles) south of the nation’s capital of Lima, illustrates how miners are exploiting abandoned or unregistered mines, often by small crews that don’t take any safety precautions.
About 450,000 people engage in this practice in the South American nation of 28 million, generating close to US$2 billion annually, according to information from the National Mining, Petroleum and Energy Company.
In the Ica region alone, where the Cabeza de Negro mine is located, there are at least 30,000 illegal miners, according to the provincial government.
The Peruvian government issued a decree on March 16 that makes informal mining a crime punishable with up to 10 years in prison. It also bans any mining activity without previous certification from the country’s Ministry of Energy and Mining.
It is unclear whether the rescued miners will face charges.
There were 52 accidents that resulted in at least one death at legal mining operations in Peru last year, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mining. From January through March 6, there have been 16.
But it is unknown how many accidents have occurred in the illegal mining sector, said Félix Guerra, an engineer and general coordinator of safety for the Buenaventura Mining Company, who led the rescue operation at Cabeza de Negro.
“For each person who dies in legal mining, I’m certain that there are 10 who die in informal mining because there are no work standards,” Guerra said. “Those deaths go unreported and only the families of those who die find out.”
Guerra added it will take more than a government decree to stop illegal mining.
“We need greater control by the government in the sale of explosives and minerals,” he said. “Also, properly certified companies need to alert authorities about informal mining practices inside their areas of exploitation.”
The rescue operation at Cabeza de Negro, which in its final stages was overseen by Peruvian President Ollanta Humala and several of his ministers, was performed by 27 engineers and mining security specialists who work at the Antapite mine, owned by Buenaventura.
Other local mining companies, such as Milpo, Volcán and Sica participated in the rescue effort by providing logistical support, tools, food and other items.
It is impossible to determine the cause of the collapses at the Cabeza de Negro mine until all of the debris is cleared out, Guerra said.
The mine featured a main shaft that was 200 meters (656 feet) long and the first collapse occurred at the 175-meter (573 feet) mark. The miners tried to escape but another collapse, at the 180-meter mark (590 feet), cut off all escape routes.
Rescue efforts were further complicated because the Cabeza de Negro mine does not have any maps or blueprints, since it hasn’t been certified by the government, making it an illegal mine, Guerra said.
Rescue workers angled a series of wood panels connected by ropes down the shaft so the wall of debris could be removed. During this process, rescue workers found the compressed air hose used by the miners to dig the shaft.
Ultimately, the inch-wide hose kept the men alive, as rescue workers used it to funnel medicine, water and soup to the men, who used their helmets as bowls, Guerra said.
The hose was also used by the miners to direct the rescue teams to their exact location.
“In addition to the hose, the success of the rescue depended on the participation of well-prepared rescuers, from companies engaged in large-scale, formal mining in Peru,” said Carmen Matos, academic coordinator of the School of Mines at the National University of Engineering in Lima.
After three days of nonstop drilling, the rescue workers opened a hole through a wall of debris between 10 to 12 meters (32 to 39 feet) thick that buried the miners, who then were swiftly hoisted to the surface via the wooden panels.
“We’ve had rescues of this type in the past in Peru, but nothing of this size,” Matos said. “Fortunately, artisanal mining in Peru mainly involves small groups of miners, otherwise we would have had more people trapped, making the rescue more difficult.”