An extraordinary rescue in the Chilean desert

9780374280604
The book “Deep Down Dark” was the basis for the film “The 33,” starring Antonio Banderas. The movie came out in November 2015.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

“Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” by Héctor Tobar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, $26)

Writing a book about an international news event, especially one that gripped the attention of the world for 69 straight days, is a daunting challenge for any author. The basic facts — 33 men were trapped in a mine in the northern Chilean desert near the city of Copiapó — were already known, as was the outcome — an extraordinary rescue, brought about by a multinational team of the right people in the right place at the right time.

So Los Angeles Times reporter Héctor Tobar, an American of Guatemalan heritage, had his work cut out for him when he was hand-selected by the miners to tell their story.

What hadn’t been revealed was how the 33 miners survived the first 17 days of their collective nightmare, when the mine owners, the families and friends were without proof that  anyone had survived the spontaneous explosions that sent a 550-foot-tall piece of gray diorite rock (about the equivalent of a 45-story building), weighing about 770,000 tons, crashing through the center of the 121-year-old San José Mine.

Another challenge: How to sift through the varied recollections of 33 individuals (32 Chileans and one Bolivian), some who may have had their own agenda, to compile a coherent picture of what happened? (Pulitzer Prize-winner Tobar also had access to a written diary that Víctor Segovia, 48, driver of a jumbo lifter, kept almost from the beginning, and some cellphone video.)

Furthering the difficulty: Many, if not all, of the 33 freed men that Tobar interviewed were suffering mentally from the after-effects of their experience. He doesn’t call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but their symptoms seem to fit that description.

Though Tobar writes about the ordeal from rock fall to rescue and beyond, it is in describing the first weeks of the men’s confinement that his narrative skill is at its peak. Readers will feel like they are physically isolated with the men in the oppressive heat and humidity of the mine, sharing their fears, and facing the uncertainty of whether they’ll ever be found — alive or dead — more than 2,100 feet below the surface.

By many accounts, August 5, 2010, was an ordinary day. Some men said they heard what they thought was unusual rumbling within the mine, a rich source of copper and some gold. But a mine is a living thing and some noise is a constant.

The men knew that the San José Mine had a poor safety record and that its owners had not carried out some of the required improvements.

The trade-off was that the miners — with bills to pay and families to support like everyone else — earned about $1,200 a month, higher wages than at some other facilities. They knew the risks when they began each 12-hour shift.

The accident happened after 1 p.m., when some of the men were expecting to be heading via truck to the surface for lunch. The ride up (or down) the Ramp, a switchback and spiral road in the mine, could extend for four to five miles, depending upon how deep a level they were working in.

A small team tried to find a way out, climbing up a rebar-runged ladder inside one of the inclined vertical shafts, called chimneys, that connect the levels of the mine. But rocks were still falling and some of the chimneys were illegally without ladders; the route was not viable.

So they retreated and joined the others, their sole stroke of luck being that all the men could make their way to the Refuge, a “room” with a white-tiled floor and a steel door that was the designated area where miners were supposed to ride out any accident. Unfortunately, it was stocked for a stay of only about two days for 25 men.

Links to the intercom, a source of fresh air and electricity were severed, the only light being that cast from the lamp on their helmets. Later Juan Illanes, a mechanic with a flair for storytelling, rigged a connection to a truck battery that provided a minimal amount of illumination, and the miners could also recharge their helmet headlamps from the stranded vehicles’ batteries.

The men ranged from Mario Gómez, 63, a truck driver, to Jimmy Sánchez, 18, who, technically shouldn’t have been in the mine, its minimum age for employment being 21. It was the first day inside the mine for front loader driver Carlos Mamami, 24, a Bolivian.

This was the entire inventory that kept the men alive for 17 days: one can of salmon, one can of peaches, 18 cans of tuna, one can of peas, 24 cans of condensed milk (eight of which were spoiled), 93 packages of cream-sandwich cookies (four cookies to a package) and 10 bottles of water. A source of industrial water was nearby, and though potable, it was contaminated with some amount of motor oil.

Each miner existed on one teaspoon of tuna a day, mixed with some water to make a broth, and two cookies, totaling less than 300 calories.

The men knew the situation was dire, but when they took a head count, they found that they totaled 33, to the religious among them, a significant number.

“The age of Christ!” says Mario Sepúlveda, a front-loader operator, referencing how old Jesus was at his crucifixion. “This has to mean something. There’s something bigger for us waiting outside.”

One of the first decisions that shift supervisor Luis Urzúa, 54, a trained topographer, made was to resign his position of authority. In his mind, if the men were going to survive, they had to put aside rank, personality differences and petty arguments, and make decisions as a unit.

What they could do as “one” every day before their noon “meal” was pray, in a service led by José Henríquez, 54, who became known as “the Pastor.”  Their faith would help them to endure the extreme physical and mental strain, while their very humanity was being tested.

To fill the anxiety-ridden days, the men tried to conserve their ebbing energy, attempted to buoy one another’s spirits and shared stories to take their minds off their predicament. Some work had to be done as well, such as filling the water tanks and policing the latrine area. They also fashioned a game of checkers from cardboard and domino pieces from white reflective plastic off a truck sign.

Meanwhile, above ground, the San Esteban Mining Company, the mine owners, had no rescue capacity for a task this size, so a government-sponsored team was mobilized. The effort ended up costing nearly $20 million.

Four days passed before any sort of drilling began. Mining equipment, trucks and specialists  — including a NASA team — and the world’s press came from far and wide to cover not only the rescue attempt but the plight of the families and friends who set up Camp Esperanza (Hope) nearby.

On the 17th day, the drilling broke through to the Refuge.

Up came the terse but reassuring message, written in red: “Estamos bien en el Refugio. Los 33.” (We are well in the Refuge. The 33.)

Once a shaft was opened, food, inflatable beds, a video camera and other supplies were sent down. Eventually, a fiber optic TV link was installed and kept open. And, most important of all, they now had the ability to exchange letters (and brief phone calls and video chats) with loved ones.

They also received newspapers, and were aware that the world was watching. They’d become celebrities, showered with offers of money and free vacation trips, awaiting them above ground. Not surprisingly, the bickering and the perception of slights became more frequent as some of the men believed their reclaimed lives would be on easy street, exacerbating their impatience to be freed.

Of the three strategies rescuers came up with, Plan B was the one to free the miners. While drilling continued, construction began at a Chilean naval shipyard on the steel-plated Escape Vehicle “Fénix,” that would bring the men out one by one.

And on the 69th day, October 13, Florencio Avalos, 31, second in command to Urzúa, was first to emerge from the mine. As shift supervisor, Urzúa, was the last of the 33 men to see the sky once more.

As the situation was developing, several media outlets produced excellent cross-section graphics illustrating how the drilling was being executed to reach the miners, and where the miners were living in the Refuge and on the Ramp levels. But no graphics were included in the book.

Neither were any photographs, with the exception of 33 small, poor quality black-and-white head shots at the beginning of the book. No pictures of the exterior of the San José Mine or surrounding Atacama desert, no map of Chile, no pictures of any of the family members or friends at Camp Esperanza or any of the government officials or experts who came to the site to render assistance were included.

What also would have been helpful was a chronology, tracking the day-to-day progress, and if not day-to-day, then at least the major milestones. And needed most of all was a list of every miner, his age, what his job was in the mine and how long he’d been employed. Some of this information was sprinkled throughout the text, but with so many personalities, and as good a job as Tobar did bringing them to life, an alphabetized list would have been beneficial to readers.

The film “The 33,” starring Antonio Banderas as Mario Sepúlveda, Lou Diamond Phillips as Luis Urzúa, and James Brolin, Gabriel Byrne and Juliette Binoche, opened in theaters last November. It was based on Tobar’s book.

Quick reference: To read an excerpt, go to http://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374280604

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