Mario Gomez, spiritual guide to trapped miners

Mario Gomez is all too familiar with the hardships of prolonged confinement. While still in his 30s, his family said, he survived as a stowaway on a ship for 11 days, living below deck on little more than bits of chocolate and drops of water collected in a shoe — an ordeal so trying it brought him closer to god.

Now, at 62 years old, Gomez is the oldest of the 33 miners trapped nearly half a mile underground and has become the spiritual guide to his men, government officials said. He has organised a small subterranean chapel and is serving as unofficial aide to the psychologists working on the surface to cope with the miners’ sadness and fear.

Miners are a hardened breed. Gomez and the two other men leading the group below are no exception. They come from traditional mining families and together have more than 90 years of experience working underground.

They have survived accidents, closings and the respiratory illnesses that plague the profession driving Chile’s economy. Now they are trying to help themselves and the others endure what could be a four-month stay in the belly of the Earth.

Aside from Gomez, there is Luis Urzua, the 54-year-old shift leader who organises their work assignments, is helping to map the path of their rescue hole and even insists that the miners wait until everyone gets food through the narrow borehole to the surface before anyone can eat.

Then there is Yonny Barrios, 50, the group’s impromptu medical monitor. He is drawing on a six-month nursing course he took about 15 years ago to administer medicines and wellness tests that health officials are sending down through the 4-inch borehole and then analysing in a laboratory on the surface.

“They are completely organised,” said Dr Jaime Manalich, Chile’s health minister. “They have a full hierarchy. It is a matter of life and death for them.” After the cave-in Aug 5, the 33 men were thought to be lost, until Chilean engineers found them 17 days later — all miraculously alive and unharmed.

Bringing hope

As hope waned, a drill operator felt some vibrations. When a 150-pound drilling hammer was raised, it had red paint on it. Later, it came back with a bag tied to the drilling tube, said Laurence Golborne, the country’s mining minister. Inside were two letters: a three-page note from Gomez to his wife and a small note in red lettering.

“We are fine in the refuge, the 33,” it read.
Since then, officials have been scrambling to aid the miners, and the workers have began boring the rescue hole. It is expected to take three to four months to complete.
The miners will play a critical role in their own escape, making their organisation and leadership essential, officials said. The men will need to clear 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes of rock that will fall as the rescue hole is cleared, officials said. The work will require the men to work in shifts 24 hours a day.

On Sunday, relatives had their first verbal communication with the miners since the cave-in, in one-minute conversations via a modified telephone. The day before relatives also recorded four- to five-minute video messages for the miners.

“We talked about the house, about all the bills that needed to be paid,” said Ximena Contreras, the wife of Paulo Rojas, one of the miners. “He was in very good spirits. He said he loves me a lot.”

Health officials said they were concerned about the emotional state of several miners in particular, some of whom did not want to appear in the first video the group made last week.

“They miss their families, but that is not necessarily a medical condition,” said Dr Jorge Diaz, who oversees the team of about 15 doctors handling the miners’ care, noting that two of the men have pregnant wives waiting up top in the makeshift tent city called ‘Camp Hope’.

But even the reluctant miners went on camera in a second video, Diaz said — after Urzua persuaded them.

Urzua began his 31-year mining career in his early 20s at his stepfather’s side. Several uncles were also miners, said his mother, Nelly Iribarren, 78. “His passion was always topography,” she said, adding that he loved to sketch roads and landscapes.

Urzua is now using that skill to aid in the miners’ rescue, officials said, helping prepare a map of the chamber and the adjoining tunnels where they are holed up some 2,300 feet down.

Day to day, he also is helping to order the men’s lives, insisting that the miners wait for the rations for all 33 — sent four times a day through the borehole — and that the men eat together, Manalich said.

Urzua is the one officials have spoken to the most. He is also the one who spoke to Pinera through the modified telephone last week. But he has assumed the role with a quiet humility, officials said.

Monitoring health

Barrios, the medical monitor, started working in the mines when he was 16. He has a diploma from a technical school in electronics and radio, his wife said. But it was the nursing course he took at a mine in the 1990s that has proved essential to officials.

Barrios is taking the miners’ temperature and blood pressure and monitoring their weight. He is also administering tests to prevent infection and malnutrition, as well as vaccinating the miners for flu, tetanus and pneumonia, Manalich said.

“He has become a precious thing for us,” the health minister said.
The miners’ psychological health will also continue to be a challenge. Gomez, the elder among them, is encouraging the miners to pray and counselling many of them, including his 19-year-old assistant, the group’s youngest member. Gomez had the idea to organise the miners into 11 groups of three to create a sort of buddy system, Manalich said.

A miner since the age of 16, Gomez learned the trade with his father even before then. As he was turning 30, he and his older brother Reinaldo struck out for Brazil to try their hands as seamen, working on the docks and boats for about a year and a half before coming back to Chile.

Then in 1979, the younger Gomez was working in a mineshaft when falling rocks sliced off parts of his fingers, an injury visible on the video of the miners when Gomez puts up his left hand and sends greetings to his wife and family.

A year after that earlier accident, Gomez returned to Brazil, stowing away on a ship and hiding in the cargo hold for 11 days, his family said. In those moments of quiet desperation, he found solace in a small Bible, although he had never been very religious before, said Reinaldo, 66.

Gomez returned to Chile in 1984, spending much of his career here at San Jose, where he survived several other accidents and developed the respiratory condition, silicosis, that felled his father at 63. The trapped miners made a special place for him in the shelter that was less humid.

“I call them the cats of San Jose,” Reinaldo said of his brother and others who survived accidents here. “I figure he is on about his fourth life now.”

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