SANTIAGO — Deep rumbling echoed for hours before a Chilean mine cave-in that trapped 33 miners August 5, but the mine's managers rejected their pleas to surface early, a lawmaker said Tuesday, citing accounts given by miners after their rescue.
The accounts suggesting that managers knew the San Jose Mine was unstable but did not act emerged a week after all 33 of the workers were pulled alive from the gold and copper mine after 69 days underground.
Chilean MP Carlos Vilches, a member of a parliamentary committee investigating the disaster, said miner Juan Illanes told him that the workers asked to be allowed to surface three hours before the mine collapse.
"He told me: the morning of the accident, at about 11 am, the mine began to signal that there were problems because deep, big noises began, and they resonated within the mine because there are many chambers.
"We warned and we asked permission to leave the mine, but they didn't let us," Vilches told AFP, quoting Illanes.
Several of the miners have filed a lawsuit against the Chilean company that operated the mine, and claims that an evacuation plea was rejected are likely to figure in the case.
Vilches said he did not know who the miners warned about the rumblings, but he has invited them to tell his committee what happened to determine who was responsible. He said four or five miners were expected to testify.
The lawmakers said Illanes gave his account of what happened while he was undergoing a medical evaluation at the Copiapo hospital the day after his rescue.
Illanes' version of events was confirmed by two other miners, Pablo Rojas and Jorge Galleguillos, Vilches said.
A similar version of the pre-collapse events was recounted by two other miners, Jimmy Sanchez and Omar Reygadas, in local media reports.
"The mine was reverberating (with sound) and yet they let us in. But I can't talk more about that," said Sanchez, who at 19 is the youngest of the rescued miners.
Reygadas told reporters that the shift chief Luis Urzua or the foreman Florencio Avalos called the mines' operations manager, Carlos Pinilla, about the rumblings.
Pinilla "knew very well what happened in the mine," Reygadas said. "For several days (the rock) was cracking," said Reygadas, adding that he would testify before the parliamentary committee.
"The mine was told early on that there could be a serious accident but that was not taken into account," Vilches told El Mercurio newspaper.
Speaking to the local media, Vilches pointed out that there had been problems at the mine before the cave-in that trapped the 33 miners.
On July 3, a miner named Gino Cortes lost a leg when a rock fell on him, and legal action was brought against the owners of the mine, Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny, and managers Pinilla and Pedro Simunovic, he said.
Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said the miners' account was "earth-shaking," and said that, if true, it was "inconceivable" that nothing was done to prevent the accident.
Mines Minister Laurence Golborne urged that judgement be deferred until all investigations into the disaster have been concluded.
"All this background will be gathered to determine responsibilities, culpability and sanctions," he said.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who in images beamed around the world hugged the miners one by one as they were winched to safety, has vowed to punish those found responsible for the collapse under criminal and civil law.
He has also promised to more than double Chile's mine safety budget, and triple the number of safety inspectors.
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