Trapped with a way out

April 17, 2012

By Mariana Bazo

It would be impossible to think of rescuing miners and not to associate such thoughts to the rescue of the Chilean miners in San Jose, Copiapo, 2010. That really was a glorious rescue after a lengthy sixty-nine day underground wait.

This time in Peru, nine miners were trapped in an illegal copper and gold mine in the desert of Ica, south of Lima.

The story began to gain momentum when it was discovered the Peruvian miners were still alive. Then with the hope came the story, curiosity, national interest and comparison.

I was camping on the beach with my family at that time, and had to leave with some of the camp equipment, along with cameras, satellite phone, water, clothes for warm and cold weather and the mandatory canned tuna. The mine at Ica is in the desert, a very similar environment to where the Chilean mine collapsed. The first thing in common: I had to travel over long sandy roads of silence.

But this time the route was very difficult. There was no highway. There was only a dusty path for carriers. When I arrived there was no room for camping and most journalists weren’t expecting to stay for days; some didn’t even plan to spend the night. But rescues are never so quick – it still took six days.

There was no phone signal or internet. Our only way to communicate was via satellite (it was a nice break to be disconnected from my BlackBerry for a few days.)

In Chile I arrived at the end of the rescue; two months after the mine collapse when rescuers finally managed to insert the pod that would begin the rescue operation. I arrived to support the Reuters team that had been standing guard at the desert mine.

The start of the rescue operation in Chile had a fixed date so we were able to plan our coverage around it. Journalists had managed to create a city parallel to the mine with campers, tents, satellite dishes and electric generators.

In our case, in Peru, there wasn’t enough room to install even a tent because the site was next to a slope on steep hills with hardly any room for official vehicles and ambulances. We left our car about an hour walk away. If you could find a flat rock to transmit you were happy. I managed to put together half of my tent and shared it with less cautious colleagues.

What makes these stories similar? Similarities come from various angles, like the families camping nearby and journalists seeking subjects who have something to say. A miner, a rescue worker, a relative, all turn into experts and have theories. Meanwhile camaraderie between colleagues helps with the extreme heat and cold of the desert, the lack of food, the canned tuna, the absence of showers and bathrooms.

We don’t often realize how journalists get caught up in the stories as well. We are like collateral who never complain because we are there as it’s our choice. Curiosity and interest mean we stay until the actual rescue happens. So I watched my colleagues lying on the nearby road, sleeping over their tripods and surviving the freezing nights.

When the story begins to grow you simply don’t sleep.

On the night of the Chilean miner rescue we all had to stay awake, with some near the mine and others looking for reactions. I had to wait for the evacuation of the rescued miners at a nearby hospital while standing on a ladder with a 400m lens for about ten hours – not stepping down until everything was done. Of course you get tired, hungry and even want to go to the bathroom but it all gets postponed.

In Peru it was the same situation. Several nights went by but on the last night we had to stay awake most of the time.

That afternoon there was an announcement that they were only one meter away and the miners would soon be rescued. Alert, run, find a position and wait! We waited through the night and nothing came. Later in a new report, there had been some complications and it was said to be a little longer. But suddenly there were rumors that Peru’s President Ollanta Humala would arrive. I found it impossible for a president to arrive at dawn, to such a dangerous and hard-to-access site. You had to drive at least two hours on a rough and insecure road. There was no way a helicopter could make it. But yes, President Humala did arrive around 10pm. Time to pull out my 400mm, clean the sand from my eyes and lens and wait for hours. Still the rescue was not happening. I tried to sleep for at least one hour in the tent, sharing it with frozen colleagues and taking shifts to see if anything was happening… Finally at 6am there was some movement and belief that this time the rescue would happen.

I had been lucky enough to speak with some family members of the trapped miners. Access to them was very restricted but there they were getting ready for the rescue too. It was a presidential event but they were the ones suffering most.

Once again I used my 400mm lens because the wait was over. Miners began to exit from the cave. It was just like before – seeing their weak bodies emerge, their eyes behind tinted glasses to avoid the light, leaning on their colleagues to walk, sporting beards and looking dirty yet happy. In that first second the emotion was the same as the one I felt in Chile, with finally seeing them thinking of their families, children and wives they were to be reunited with.

In Chile there were many flags. They even had flags with the faces of the miners on them. Here too, the president was waving a Peruvian flag victoriously. It’s a nationalistic thing even though the miners are illegal.

With the president leading the event, families were reunited and there was a lot of desperation from the press. There was a signal from the president inviting us to go down the slope to end up next to the miners.

It all happened very fast but I was lucky to catch a glimpse of a wife and son that I had met before. Flor and Josue were reuniting with rescued miner Javier. I saw Josue offer a biscuit to his father Javier and in the middle of the pushing I managed to take the shot. There were few opportunities to capture personal moments and this was one of them.

In Chile, once the rescue was completed, I went to the house of rescued miner Johnny Barrios who had become a celebrity because two women “claimed” him but it was impossible not to be harassed by the press. The couple was kissing for the camera, allowing all of the photographers to get the same picture.

The story in Chile was a global story, a unique rescue, the one in Peru rapidly shifted on to the inside pages despite the similarities.

But the miners were rescued; illegal miners, without insurance or rights but with families and a life that now goes on. Slopes, satellite phones, emotions, beards, tinted glasses, canned tuna, stumbles, pushing trucks around the desert and finally a mission accomplished. Us journalists were also released.

(View a slideshow of the rescue here)

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