After rescue, Chile lures tourists with mine tours
Inspired by the rescue of 33 miners that amazed the world, Chile is offering tourists a chance to see first-hand what the workers experienced during their 69-day ordeal trapped underground.
"This is how the miners felt," said a visitor riding down a narrow elevator shaft into the depths of the Chiflon del Diablo (Draft of the Devil) mine near the coastal city of Lota.
Visitors can venture as far as about 50 meters (160 feet) down into the coal mine, which operated from 1884 to 1997, when the government shut down less profitable mining operations.
Roberto Rojas, who was a miner until a little over a decade ago, guided a band of tourists wearing safety mining helmets with headlights to explore the dark, cramped quarters of scores of miners from years past.
In the cold dampness underground, Rojas showed visitors a rusty, empty cage. It now serves as a grim reminder of past tragedies and just how perilous of an occupation mining can be.
"It's a bird cage, was used to detect firedamp (methane), an odorless gas that can kill," he said.
"When the bird died, they cried 'Firedamp!' And everybody ran up."
He carried a modern methanometer, which long ago eliminated the need for putting canaries' lives at risk far from the sun.
A German woman and her son were among the visitors, along with several families from the capital Santiago.
They followed Rojas through a network of tunnels braced by wooden beams, bending down and crouching as the ceiling grew lower and lower. They happened upon the coal seam and spaces miners used to eat or create improvised washing nooks in the galleries.
Tour guide Martin Bernetti got the crowd in the mood by singing a mining song.
"We want to honor the miners, those who do the hard work of extracting the coal, the coal, the coal from under the sea," he sang in his strident voice, pointing to a very dark part of the mine, as the visitors crowded around him.
It was all dark but for the headlights and intermittent camera flashes as people like Rodrigo Aguay, a 23-year-old Chilean soldier touring with his girlfriend, took pictures.
But not all mines enjoy the same fate as Chiflon del Diablo. There are no plans to ever again allow workers, let alone tourists, in the San Jose mine where Chilean workers nearly lost their lives last year after a cave-in.
The miners survived more than two months in a tunnel 622 meters (2,041 feet) below the surface, at the copper mine in the northern Atacama desert.
The government closed the mine after their dramatic rescue from the longest mining shift in history, stressing it was simply too dangerous to allow any one in, and the miners have since become global media stars.
But Chile's economy thrives on mining and other proposals have been tabled to introduce tourists to this key industry.
Tours are on offer in some northern mines and other closed copper mines, including one in mining ghost town Sewell.
Rojas explained that miners' children began working at the age of eight, and used ropes tied to the tunnel walls to help navigate through the darkness.
"Whoever entered the mine learned to love it," he said.
As the tour came to a close, Rojas asked his group to turn off the headlights and soak in the darkness, dampness and claustrophobia that miners experience as part of their daily toil.
"My poor dad, I did not know it was so hard when he worked at the mine," said Masiel Soto as he climbed out for a breath of fresh air. He said his father stopped working in the mines when he lost several fingers in a mining accident.
The record-setting October rescue gave unexpected attention to coal mining in Chile and around the world.
In Lota, where unemployment stands at 17.4 percent, former miners had to find other occupations after a life devoted to mining.
Miguel Reyes now sells calendars at the entrance to the visitor site, but still holds out hope the mine will be reopened one day.
"There is coal that can be mined for 500 years, and with new power plants being built, the mines could reopen," he said.
With new technology, some experts argue that coal energy could shed its "dirty" image and be cleaner than in the past.
"All I can say is the coal is here," added Reyes.
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