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Anxious families settle in as they wait for trapped miners

From Karl Penhaul, CNN
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A father's sacrifice
  • 33 miners have been trapped since August 5
  • The miners may not be rescued until sometime in December
  • For the families, the waiting is the hardest part

(CNN) -- Jose Vega may be 70 years old but, he's fit and wiry. He's uncomfortable sitting still and is constantly on the move.

Whether it's a freezing cold morning or a blistering hot afternoon, Vega wears his white plastic miner's safety helmet with pride.

He seems like an aging soldier on guard -- and in a way he is.

Vega is on guard, like he has been every day for the last three-and-a-half weeks, waiting for news of his son Richard Alex Vega and his 32 companions trapped deep in the bowels of the earth.

The San Jose mine, in Chile's Atacama desert, caved in on August 5, and Jose Vega rushed to the scene, with five others, including his eldest son, ready to mount their own rescue effort.

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"I'm not the kind of person to sit there with my arms crossed and crying. I said my son needs my help and I'm going after him," he said, sitting on a pile of gray rocks about 100 meters from the entrance to the San Jose mine complex.

Vega has been a miner all his life, often working in small wildcat mines tapping deposits of copper, gold or other minerals. His own father was a miner and now his sons have followed in his footsteps.

"I've been through the school of life, and I've been working in this since I was a boy," he said. "I trained to be a mechanic but I like mining. I'm a miner and my father was a miner too."

With a lifetime's experience behind him, Vega says he often talks to the rocks and the rocks talk to him. It may sound a little crazy but it's his way of saying that his ear is in tune with the way mountains and the earth beneath them move.

"Every mountain gives a warning when it's going to collapse," Vega said. "You can hear when the earth is compressing and that means there could be a cave-in at any moment."

His son Richard Alex Vega had been complaining for weeks that he could hear the San Jose mine "groaning" deep underground. Vega asked him not to go.

"I told my son two months before the cave-in, 'son that mine is sending you a warning, stop working there,'" he said. "But he said, 'dad, I'm fixing up my house I need to carry on.'"

Just hours after the mine caved in on August 5, Vega ventured deep inside the mine with his five-man team, armed only with flashlights and ropes.

"It was terrible, terrible. I looked up and the roof was opening," Vega said. "Rocks were falling down and I was looking for a way to make it through the shower of rocks."

Follow full coverage of the stranded miners on CNN Chile

Eventually he found a path that went deeper via a ventilation chimney. But by the time he called for extra help from other rescuers on the surface he says the air shaft collapsed too.

All routes down were now blocked. Vega had to go back to the surface even though he says he had been ready to sacrifice his own life to save his son.

He says the experience of getting showered by rocks about 350 meters deep inside the collapsed mine was terrifying.

"I left Jose, the man, at the door and Jose, the miner, went inside," Vega said. "A miner must be brave. It's like the boxer when he steps into the ring. He must leave his fear outside."

For the last three-and-half weeks Vega has spent his days waiting outside the mine, sometimes in the company of his daughter-in-law Jessica Salgado -- Richard Alex Vega's wife.

The couple have three children, the oldest is 14 and the youngest just two years old.

"At the time it didn't sink in that the accident had been so big," Salgado said. "I cried a lot, but I was trying to keep my spirits up because of the children."

When she heard of the accident she tried to call her husband, whom she fondly calls "little duck," on his cell phone, but the call went straight to voicemail.

She nor any of the relatives of the 33 miners heard anything from their loved ones until 17 days later on August 22. A search and rescue probe delved 700 meters into the ground and located the shelter where they were holed up.

The miners taped a simple message to the probe; "We're fine, in the shelter, all 33."

Salgado had to wait until August 26 to see her husband for the first time since the collapse. It was the day rescuers passed a video camera down to the trapped miners.

"We're calm down here even though the conditions are not that good," Richard Alex Vega said in a message to his family. "We know we're going to make it out of here. We know we will not be down here forever."

Government engineers say it won't be forever, but it may be Christmas before the miners are freed.

Meanwhile old-timer Jose Vega is talking to the rocks and seeing if they offer any clues how to get his son home sooner.

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