About 100 miners had gathered. By 9:30 a.m. they were still stuffing their cheeks with coca leaves. They seemed in no hurry to begin the day. A union boss with rotting teeth and a wizened face began talking to the men about preparations for the Miners' Carnival. They would all wear brightly-colored costumes and dance a traditional native Quechua dance that would require weeks of rehearsal. Something for everyone to look forward to. One day of brightness in the grim yearly calendar.
We were told that we should enter before the other miners. Julio Cesar, his brother and three other miners would be our guides. And so, with a camera rolling, we walked down those rail tracks, through the iron gate and into the darkness.
The ground was wet and muddy and hard to navigate. With no lights but those on our helmets, we could see only a few yards in front us. The first stretch was easy: all six feet of my frame could stand upright. But it was hard to be an observer navigating the mud and uneven ground and watching warily for broken beams that could hit your head.
The entire passageway was held up with wooden beams, one on each side, and one above. Some were snapped and broken, others tilted and unconnected. There was nothing about these surroundings to inspire confidence. I looked back and there was no sign of daylight. We were inside the Cerro Rico.
The shaft sloped downwards into the mountain. As we proceeded, the ceiling got lower and lower and we had to crouch, and at times, crawl. I could feel my lungs gasping for more oxygen than the thin air was prepared to yield. The temperature began to rise. Our plastic pants and jackets were like ovens, keeping in the sweat and intensifying the heat.
With Julio Cesar's older brother and several other miners who were a few years older than he in our posse, he willingly ceded the spotlight to his elders. The candor he spoke with an hour or so earlier was replaced by a team spirit that seemed to tolerate no place for fear or doubts. One of the guys motioned for us to turn into a narrow rocky tunnel to the right. We followed for a hundred yards or so, and they came to stop at a hole. Above it sat an old hand winch.
"We'll go down here," one of the guys said casually.
I looked down. All I could see was a narrow, dirt-lined shaft that disappeared into the darkness below. There was no ladder, no steps.
"How far down are we going?" I asked.
"Not far, 15 meters [45 feet]," he said. He explained that we would be lowered down one at a time by rope. He said it was the only way to get to the next level of the mine below us.
And then I asked a sensible question that elicited an answer I did not want to hear.
"How many exits are there to this particular mine?" I asked.
"Solo uno," came the chorus of answers. Just one.
I could feel my heart racing. I looked at my cameraman Al Durruthy and my producer Roxanna Sherwood. We were already half a mile inside. The heat was oppressive. The air was stale and foul smelling. And now, with just one exit, we were being asked to plunge 45 feet into a hole that had no exit except the way we entered. It looked to me like a vertical tomb. If something went terribly wrong, there was no way we'd get out.
I've taken a lot of risks in this job before: Iraq, Pakistan, Haiti, the guerilla-infested jungles of Colombia. I've seen bombs go off, I've had guns pointed in my face. This seemed to rival the worst of them.