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Family survives quake, now husband trapped in mine

August 28, 2010

COPIAPO, Chile (AP) — It’s a tale of two disasters, an unbelievable misfortune for a family. But this is the reality for Carola Narvaez.

Her family survived Chile’s big earthquake six months ago, yet the temblor destroyed the shipyard where her husband worked. That forced him to take a job four months ago in a copper and gold mine.

And now he is trapped far underground, along with 32 other miners, more than three weeks after an underground landslide left them with no way out.

The twin disasters have created a story of the challenges still faced by the poor in Chile despite two decades as Latin America’s economic darling -- a family facing extreme adversity, unwavering faith and ultimately a love that Narvaez says has only grown stronger by the bad luck.

Narvaez’s husband, Raul Bustos, is a heavy-machinery mechanic whose skills have always been in demand. For years he has made a living repairing the equipment that rips copper ore, the lifeblood of Chile’s economy, out of the earth, or helping build ships in ports along the nation’s 4,000-mile (6,400-kilometer) coastline.

Six months ago Friday, the family was living in the port city of Talcahuano, 300 miles (500 kilometers) south of the capital, where Raul was working for Chilean shipbuilder Asmar.

Like most Chileans, the couple were sound asleep when one of the most powerful earthquakes registered in a century struck the central coast Feb. 27.

What the earthquake did not knock down, the tsunami it triggered washed away. While the family’s home survived, ships in Asmar’s yards were pushed into the street and the builder’s operations destroyed.

Having to support his wife and two small children, Bustos looked to northern Chile, where mines dot the barren lunar landscape. Two months later he found his way to the San Jose mine, one of hundreds of midsize operations digging into the rocky, red earth in search of copper, gold and other minerals.

Narvaez stayed behind with their children, 5-year-old Maria Paz and 3-year-old Vicente. When word arrived of the Aug. 5 collapse at the mine, she left the kids with her parents and rushed to the mine site and has camped out since.

“In the earthquake we just had to keep on living. We had our lives,” Narvaez said as she sat in a tent camp just outside the gates leading to the mine where Raul is buried 2,200 feet (700 meters) underground. “This is the same. It is producing much anguish, isolation, fear. But we’re alive. My husband is alive down in that mine, and we will have another happy ending.”

Bustos and the 32 other miners — the most experienced of whom make about $1,000 a month — were trapped by a collapse of the main access shaft, which corkscrews more than 4 miles (7 kilometers) into the mountain. They were cut off from the outside world for 17 days until Sunday, when rescuers successfully sank a narrow bore-hole down to their shelter after seven failed attempts. Two additional bore-holes were later drilled.

Narvaez said her hopes were further bolstered after seeing her husband Thursday night on a 45-minute video the miners made with a small camera sent to them via one of the bore-holes.

Also, the notes that she has passed back and forth with her husband have helped.

In a strong voice, she read one of them aloud.

“My little thing, you should know the words you sent me made me cry,” her husband wrote on a piece of smudged, lined paper, referring to a note she sent him. “They have always been with me, along with my God who gave me strength to overcome anxiety.”

In the note, Bustos tells his wife that he nicknamed the first drill that finally reached the miners after the couple’s daughter, Maria Paz, because it was “the winner, who never loses, and it broke through.”

Relatives of the trapped miners repeat the same answer when asked what drove their men to toil underground in a small mine that does not have the same safety regulations as larger operations.

“There is plenty of work outside of mining in the Atacama (Desert), mostly in agriculture,” said Lila Ramirez, whose 63-year-old husband, Mario Gomez, is also trapped in the mine. “But a man wants to work in the mine because it is a way to improve the economic situation of a home, to create a life of dignity.”

Chile’s average annual per-capita growth rate of 4.1 percent over the past two decades makes it the most successful of all Latin American nations, according to the World Bank. Per-capita incomes have doubled and the nation is perched on the edge of joining the ranks of the world’s developed nations.

Yet 14 percent, or 2.3 million, of Chile’s 16 million people still live in poverty, the bank says. Several million scrape by just above the poverty level.

Some of them risk their lives in the mines of the Atacama Desert — home to great mineral wealth that makes up 40 percent of Chile’s export income — and where hard, dangerous labor gives them a chance at a better life.

Other regions of Chile have made strides in fighting poverty. But even as the Atacama experienced “dynamic growth,” it has not reduced poverty, a recent report from the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean said.

Warming her hands around an open-air fire, Narvaez, 36, an administrator at a health care company, said poverty certainly is not looming for her family.

Still, her husband’s desire to boost the family’s income brought him to the San Jose mine. Since April, he has alternated seven-day shifts in the mine with weeklong stretches at home with his family in Talcahuano, 700 miles (1,125 kilometers) away.

“Mining is one of the best-paid jobs a man can get in Chile,” Narvaez said. “But it means your husband is moving around, is often away and only comes back home for short periods.”

She acknowledged that overcoming two disasters in six months was tough, but expressed optimism that rescuers will be able to free the men. Nor does she feel cursed.

“If it were bad luck, then there would be a bad ending,” she said. “Neither of these disasters will have a bad ending.”

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