Raul Villegas was driving a truck up a ramp … 1,800 feet underground … when he heard the crack and first saw the dust. Villegas was used to hauling rock out of copper mines in northern Chile, so he had often heard the creaks and moans of the angry earth. He drove on, passing a couple of miners heading down. But as he inched up the ramp he felt a wave hit his truck, “like when there is a dynamite explosion.” Glancing back, it was as if he were looking down the heart of an erupting volcano. He rushed up the endless, sharp turns of the corkscrewing mine and finally made it to the surface. He, at least, was safe. But when he described the sound and dust cloud to his bosses, no one listened.
Someone told Villegas to drive back down, into the mine.
This time he could only go so far. Some 1,200 feet down there was no longer a road, and all around him he could hear the sounds of groaning rock. He turned around and sped up, out of the darkness. Something was very wrong in the San José Mine.
Six men trained to handle mine emergencies retraced the route of Villegas’s truck, daring to go down to see what had happened, to find whoever was trapped in the mine.
The exhausted rescue crew returned … alone.
So began one part of a story that captured the attention of the world—bringing together everyone, from experts on outer space to drill bit manufacturers from Pennsylvania, from nutritionists to camera crews. But the real story started millions of years earlier.
© 2011 Marc Aronson