Their discovery was revealed in images that were greeted with jubilation and disbelief around the world as president Sebastian Pinera held up a note the miners had attached to the drill head which read: ‘All 33 of us are alive inside the shelter.’ Mario now says that note was written when the men ‘had all but given up’.‘By that stage we were not sure if anyone would ever come for us,’ he says, his voice cracking with emotion and his eyes filling with tears.Mario says despite the mine having a poor safety record he was earning the equivalent of £1,000 a month, almost double the normal salary for a miner.
The only thought that kept going through my head was that I didn’t want to die before my children had an education. And it ran out halfway up the shaft.’ He says after an agonising 150ft climb up the two-foot-wide shaft, the ladder ran out. I tried to climb without the ladder but the walls crumbled. I could see two big rocks up ahead that were blocking the shaft. I came back down and had to tell the other guys there was no way out.’ ‘Luis was the foreman and so when we worked we naturally deferred to him but when the working day finished we were Los 33. Each person had a vote and if 17 men voted one way, that made the decision.
It sounds like a crazy thought but that is so important to me. It was a shaft that should have had a ladder in it. The walls were soft and the rocks fell back in my face.’The flimsy ladder was made of leather and rope – used instead of metal because it wouldn’t rust. We tried to stay as normal as we could under the circumstances and to watch out for each other.‘If one was down, the others rallied. Every time that happened, we worked as a team, to try to keep the morale up. We knew that if society broke down we would all be doomed.
An electrician by trade, he became a miner ten years ago to help support his growing family.
He had worked in the San Jose gold and copper mine for three years, spending the week at the mine and weekends with his family in the Chilean capital Santiago, an hour’s flight south.
Mario, a deeply religious man like most in this devoutly Catholic country, says: ‘That was one act of God right there. It tasted foul but it didn’t poison us, even though it was tainted. But I would walk away from the others, down a tunnel, so they would not see me weep. ‘There was underground water which we found on about day four and we used that water to bathe. Once we found the water coming off the rock shelf we used a cup and would stand there, two in a pair, and help each other wash.