On August 5th, 2010, in the remote and hostile Atacama desert region of Chile, the 120-year-old San Jose hard rock copper and gold mine collapsed, entombing 33 miners in the lower tunnel network, 600–700 meters below the surface. A rescue team, quickly assembled by the mining community, entered the mine. What they found was a massive 700,000 tonne movement of rock that completely blocked the upper part of the mine, and worse still, it was moving and unstable, making access into the mine totally unsafe.

After 17 days of searching, having found no signs of the miners in probe holes in the upper and middle sections of mine, a probe hole penetrated lower part of mine network. When the drilling stopped and equipment silenced, tapping sounds were faintly heard. The probe bit was pulled out of the hole. When it neared the surface, fresh red paint marks were found with a note wrapped around the drill bit saying, “the 33 of us are alive and well”. A camera was lowered through the probe hole and the resulting images of the miners were broadcast worldwide. This initial hole, and a couple of following  probe holes, were then used to transport food, water, voice and video cables and diesel to the miners down hole. The rescue efforts then turned into an ambitious engineering challenge of drilling for miners.

It was at this point, while taking a two day vacation for my first visit to Photokina, that I received a call asking me if I would like to participate in the rescue of the Chilean miners. I made my decision on the spot without hesitation. So with just a one hour visit to Photokina achieved and only a glimpse of the Leica stands, I got on the next plane to London, grabbed my safety gear, some clothes, a sleeping bag,  my M9 camera and headed the San Jose mine. As baggage volume was going to be an issue, I chose my current versions of 24mm Elmarit, 75mm Summicron and Noctilux 1.0 lenses and a small 15mm Voigtlander. A colleague was waiting for me upon my arrival in Copiapó, a small city in the heart of the mining area of Chile. We went directly to the mine, driving through a desert area, mines and mining tracks visible on just about every mountain.

I quickly slotted into my company’s team drilling one of the wells, leading the coordination with other companies, mining managers, government and media. The first couple of days in Chile I was extremely busy at the task at hand, drilling for miners and using my M9 as a tool to document my team’s work. The camera was used in some strange ways. For example, one of the rescue contingencies was running the rescue capsule on a special electric cable, requiring an adapter to be created. One of our engineers and I went to the capsule, measured it, designed an adapter and sketched it out in my notebook. I photographed my notebook sketches and notes and the rescue capsule, using the Noctilux wide-open to highlight potential issues, etc. These sketches and photos were emailed to one of our engineering centres to be fabricated.

One day, in an area setup by the families, I met an elderly Chilean couple who had travelled 2 ½ days by bus to be at the mine. What particularly moved me was when they explained that they came from a small coastal town, which earlier this year had been severely hit by an earthquake-induced tsunami. They felt lucky to be alive so even though they came from the fishing community, they wanted to show their support for the miners and mining community. They had arrived that morning and were making the return bus journey that evening. Another person that amazed me of the general public was “Mario”, a Chilean who vowed that if the miners were successfully rescued, he would walk/run from the mine to his home in Santiago, an approximate 900 km journey that he estimated would take 90 days. The photo I took of him was at sunset, about 30 km from the mine, two days after the rescue had been successfully completed – he had started working on his vow. Everyone I met had a personal reason for wanting to be present, regardless if they were from the general public, the mining community, geologist, mountain rescue, doctor, nurse, police or Chilean Special Forces.

On October 12th, the first rescue well penetrated the lower tunnel network with a 28 inch drill bit, and the retrieval of the miners started. I watched the actual rescue of the miners from three very distinct perspectives: the rescue well, the plaza of Copiapó and on live television. The perspective from the rescue well was amazing, a relieved and energetic miner, an apprehensive spouse and children confused with all the dignitary and media presence. In Copiapó, a large array of screens had been mounted in the city plaza showing the rescue footage live. At 2 a.m. the plaza was packed with families watching the rescue together. You saw the hopes of a community, an industry and a nation in the eyes of the people.

Early in the morning after the rescues were finished, I went back to the mine. Hardly anyone was around, everyone exhausted from the rescue operations. The rescue capsule, called Phoenix 2, was lying on its side battered and well worn from its 40 or so round trips. I had been around the capsule about a half a dozen times before the rescue operations, in an engineering role, but this time was special. I sat and lay in the battered capsule, and the reality of what had been achieved hit me, a very proud and emotional moment. I feel the real story behind the Chilean miners was one of hope and not giving up. Neither the miners, government nor the people involved in the rescue gave up, something I feel we can all learn from.

During the month I spent in Chile my M9 and lenses performed flawlessly in these harsh conditions. The only precautions I took were not to change lenses often, due to the extremely dusty desert and industrial environment.  I had the camera with me all the time. I, like just about everyone else involved, feel extremely proud to participate in this event, and through my photos, be able to share some behind-the-scenes stories with family and friends.

-John Amedick

John Amedick is a Canadian engineer based in the UK, working for an international company. He has worked and lived in Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Egypt, Oman, Indonesia, Japan and Australia. John enjoys travelling with his family, flying float planes in the Canadian bush and is an avid amateur photographer who likes to capture the people and places in his journeys. John became a  Leica R user as soon as he lived outside of Canada and transitioned to the M-System recently, owning a M8 and now an M9. He can be contacted at jamedick [at] gmail.com or through the Leica user group.