Out of the limelight and we forget.
"Los 33: Chilean miners face up to a strange new world"
The rescue of 33 miners from Chile's San José mine after 69 days trapped underground was a triumph shared with the whole world. But the transition back to normality is proving difficult for both the men and their families
July 17th, 2011
The rescue of 33 miners from Chile's San José mine after 69 days trapped underground was a triumph shared with the whole world. But the transition back to normality is proving difficult for both the men and their families
July 17th, 2011
"They are not heroes. We are not heroes. We are all victims," murmurs Lilly Ramírez, the uncompromising partner of Mario Gómez. At 63, he was the oldest of "the 33" Chilean miners who were trapped half a mile under the Chilean desert on 5 August 2010, and whose rescue became a global event for a TV audience of an estimated 1 billion people.
Ever since they emerged 69 days later on the night of 12/13 October, I have been working on two BBC documentaries: about what happened while the men were down the mine – and what has happened to them and their families since. Now, as the first anniversary approaches, it is the tenacity and the suffering of the women – the wives and partners – that emerges. They and their men were certainly victims but I am not sure Lilly is right: there are certainly heroines – from Lilly herself to the many other women who have struggled ever since to keep their families together. For their men emerged famous, but changed.
For Lilly, the beginning of the story that August night comes straight from the nightmares of miners' families the world over. She was preparing dinner as usual for Mario, one of their four daughters, Romina, and their one-year-old granddaughter Camila when there was the proverbial "knock on the door". A manager from the mine was standing there. Lilly remembers the man saying there had been an accident at the pit but that they were bringing in the required machinery and the men should be free by morning. "I told him that he could not fool me. I told him that I knew the terrible state of that mine and that if there had been a collapse there was no way the men would be out by morning."
She dropped everything and forced the manager to drive her for an hour to the pithead – little more than a big hole in the rocky hillside and a couple of cabins. She was to stay there in the middle of the Atacama desert, among the driest places on earth, for the next 69 days, only returning home when Mario had been rescued. By then he had been through a traumatic near-death experience but had also become among the most famous people on the planet. Today, Lilly and Mario are still struggling to understand what happened to him and to them.
The San José mine produced the usual mix of copper, gold and other minerals that makes the rock under the desert in northern Chile among the most valuable in the world. Both Lilly and Mario knew it was more dangerous than most – more than 100 years old, the mine comprised huge tunnels that had been driven down over half a mile into the mountainside. Eight miners had died there since 2000 and it had been closed briefly after an accident in 2007. The owners, the San Esteban mining company, paid a premium of 20% for people to work there. Mario was earning just that little bit more before retiring, but he never imagined the possibility of a collapse like this. "I knew the mine had its problems, but I never imagined that the main tunnel would collapse," he says.
When Lilly arrived at the mine that first evening, she found the first rescue teams emerging, having found no way through to the trapped men. "It was chaos. No one knew what was going on." The mine administrators on the surface were not even sure quite how many people had been trapped. Lilly knew from Mario's stories of the day-to-day inefficiencies of the mine that it was badly run: "I trusted no one." As soon as she arrived, she sensed that rescue teams might pull out, insisting that no more could be done.
She felt that if the managers were constantly cutting corners on safety, they would hardly commit easily to the possible costs of a full-scale rescue and all that might involve. Apocryphal stories of how miners are simply left to die after an accident are commonplace across Latin America. So Lilly and the other relatives who had made it to the mine "picked up sticks and bars", confronted the police and blocked the road. "We knew that if they [the rescuers] left, then it would all be over. So we begged the rescue teams not to abandon us, but to help us put pressure on the managers who were there."
The regional police chief, who was at the mine that first night, confirms this was the critical moment. Without the families' intervention he believes the miners might well have been left entombed after the failure of the first attempt to find a way through the main tunnel.
In all the backslapping triumph of the final rescue, the story of those first uncertain days tends to be forgotten. Few remember how Lilly and the other women managed to transform a local tragedy into a national event and so save their men. There was little good news in those first days. The next day rescue teams emerged saying a boulder the size of the Empire State Building had collapsed inside the mountain, taking down eight levels of the mine. And the mountain was still moving. They also said there was no way down the main tunnel and that the specially designed escape shafts, supposed to work in such an eventuality, were either blocked or had collapsed.
Lilly was having none of such defeatism. She remembers: "The authorities up there tried to kick us out. They told us that the children would get sick, that they should be at school… That we had no business up at the mine… That we were getting in the way." By now, most of the Gómez family had turned up – as had many of the other relatives, camped out beside the mine, setting up what would later be known all over the world as Camp Hope.
Lilly's voice turns scornful at the patronising tone taken towards them by the very male world of mining. It is an environment where men know best, and women aren't allowed to enter a mine for fear of bringing bad luck.
Looking at the images of those first days, it is astonishing to see these desperate women exploit the power of the media, first on local TV. "We called on the president of Chile not to allow our men to be abandoned," remembers Lilly. "We appealed to him as a father, as a family man, saying how he should put himself in our shoes." The women's raw emotion found an audience.
They were lucky. The government had been heavily criticised for its handling of an earthquake and tsunami six months previously. The new business-driven president, Sebastián Piñera, was also perceived as aloof and indifferent to the common worker. Faced with these appeals, the mining minister, Laurence Golborne, was dispatched to the scene. Recalls Elvira "Katty" Valdivia, wife of one of the trapped men, Mario Sepúlveda: "We realised more and more journalists were turning up… so if we were unhappy we almost ate the minister and went out and held a press conference. The press realised we were doing their work for them – holding the government to task." Certainly Golborne was responsible for the government taking over the rescue and saying that no expense would be spared in trying to find the trapped men. His transformation from villain – the minister responsible for the regulatory system that allowed the mine to function and that employed just three inspectors for 884 mines in the region – into smiling, smooth, English-speaking global TV star over the following 69 days was one of the minor miracles of the whole story.
The first 17 days were the worst for the families: the days and nights when no one knew if any of the miners were even alive. As one of those trapped underground says: "At least we knew we were alive but might die. For our families there was the torment of not knowing." Elvira talks of never sleeping and not knowing what to tell her children. She was never certain that she was not simply waiting to pick up the body of her husband.
For Lilly, the period remains a blur. "I barely slept or ate. It was like I was punishing myself. It is wrong if I eat and he's not eating." Days of optimism were followed by failure when probes broke or were driven off course by the rock. Lilly says she never doubted Mario was alive. She sensed him next to her. "I know that sounds mad but I felt him with me as I lay down. I felt his breath." She was sure that at least some of them were alive somewhere beneath the desert floor. But would the rescuers get to them in time?
Every day counted – and so every day the families, on a roller-coaster of hope and despair, kept the pressure on the rescuers via the national Chilean media for whom this had become a daily story. It is easy to forget that it only became a major international story after the miners had been discovered.
Researching our film 17 Days Buried Alive, it has become clear quite how inaccurate the company's maps were and how the drilling was a little "like looking for a needle in a haystack", a small bunker half a mile down through sheer rock. When, on day 14, the major probe found nothing, Lilly remembers a sense of panic. The authorities had prevented any attempts to explore for ways down via the main tunnel after further collapses on day three, but now the families had found freelance miners (so-called "pirquineros") who were willing to try to find a way through. The government stood firm, not wanting further accidents; the families, led by Lilly, appealed to the media, clearly losing trust in the experts. Fortunately they never had to force the issue.
The miracle, when it came on day 17, when the rescuers heard the probe being hit and so knew someone was alive, was that all 33 were alive and uninjured. You cannot find Lilly on camera during the scenes of jubilation that followed their discovery. As the beaming president read out the note that was attached by the miners to the drillhead ("We are fine in the refuge – the 33"), Lilly is nowhere to be seen. "I remember I stood up to scream out of euphoria… and I fainted. I was out for eight minutes… Then I didn't go out to celebrate, I went to the statue of the Virgin, I started to cry, telling her I knew she would not fail me."
That was the moment a national news story was turned into a global celebration as the international media descended on the mine. As the rescuers fashioned an escape hole and a capsule to bring the miners out, the appetite for rolling news became overwhelming. Everything was public. Mario Gómez proposed a church marriage to Lilly. Then there was Yonni Barrios, who had both mistress and wife turning up to claim their piece of his "fame". (Yonni has ended up with the mistress.) There was also the showman, Edison Peña, who did Elvis Presley impersonations and went running through the underground tunnels, and whose fame was ensured when the photos were published all over the world.
On the surface the pithead was turning into a small town of Winnebagos, satellite dishes and TV presenters. In the absence of any real story as the drills did their noisy business, the families became the stars. Their every move in Camp Hope was followed by hordes of cameras looking for an "exclusive" bit of emotion for the next report home to Tokyo, Moscow or London.
Elizabeth Segovia was due to give birth to her third child when the disaster struck. She remembers how when the media discovered this, all privacy was washed away. Sitting in her little one-room living space, her face creases with distaste: "They even walked into the house without asking." Then there was footage of her husband Ariel Ticona, still down the mine, telling her that his new friends, the other trapped miners, had decided that the baby would be called Esperanza, or "Hope".
Elizabeth suddenly found herself carrying a symbol. So with her husband still underground in September, she was filmed on the gurney on the way to deliver and asked: "How do you feel?" The same question was repeated when she was brought out clutching her publicly named baby, Esperanza. Their lives were no longer their own.
Days later their men emerged to a watching planet. The Chilean president was there with his wife, smiling broadly. Clearly, the £12m price tag for the rescue was money well spent – almost a public relations coup for the skill and ingenuity of the Chilean mining industry. A disaster had been turned into a good news story and a triumph.
And the world did not simply move on. Invitations from all over came flooding in to the men, most of whom did not have a passport. Then there was talk of possible Hollywood deals. Was it Leonardo or Brad, Angelina or Penélope who would play Ariel and Elizabeth in the movie?
Now, a year on, talk of movie millions has receded. Lilly lives on a building site. Like many of the miners, Mario is using what money has come their way to extend their house by a room or two. When you turn up at their home among the one-storey breeze-block houses that make up most of the mining town of Copiapó it is a salutary reminder of quite how modest their lives were and are: most live with families of five or more in two-bedroom houses. For some the money has meant running water on tap for the first time.
Somewhat surreally, Lilly is perched in her kitchen next to a shiny red Kawasaki motorbike – the fulfilment of a promise by the manufacturers to all the miners. There are virtually no miles on the clock; 63-year-old Mario had never been on a motorbike before. He has apparently used it twice but never been out of second gear. On a shelf is the icon of the Virgin Mary that Lilly had with her at Camp Hope, along with all sorts of "33" memorabilia.
Lilly reflects on the past year with mixed feelings. She is of course deeply grateful that Mario and his fellow miners were extracted via the extraordinary rocket-like cage the experts designed. She is also touchingly conscious of the pain suffered by the widows of the New Zealand mining disaster, in November last year. Somehow the miracle at San José made the tragedy at Pike River seem all the more painful. At the same time, in her worst moments she wonders whether all her sacrifice last summer was worth it.
Life with Mario is not easy. Few of the men have returned unmarked to their former lives. It has been a hugely upsetting process. Understandably, the men have been the centre of attention. They were lauded and flown around the world. They were filmed in Los Angeles as the "CNN Heroes" or introduced as celebrities to 75,000 spectators at Old Trafford at the invitation of Bobby Charlton and a Chilean wine company. When recognised on the streets of New York or Tel Aviv, everyone wants smiles and photos, a touch "for luck" – a bit of them. When a group (who shall remain nameless) wanted to go to a lap dancing club in Manchester, the bouncers shook their hands and waved them in for free. The story of their rescue is like a ray of light in a dark and difficult world.
Back home, the men have received weekly therapy as part of a government insurance scheme that covers their incomes until they are able to go back to work. But their global travels have meant patchy attendance – and pretty quickly, the authorities were threatening to withdraw the therapy if they continued to go abroad and miss sessions. Meeting the miners, you sense that there has been no coherent strategy to help them find their way back to any sort of normality, no serious attempt to help them through their extraordinary experience. Ariel says he does not need any therapy; others complain that the meetings are pointless and lead nowhere. You sense they have not been told in any coherent way the long-term nature of the trauma they may have suffered and the type of treatment that may require. They were, after all, trapped underground for longer than any other recorded group of men. Certainly in many cases the therapy has combined with much shorter-term solutions: astonishing levels of medication – pills to let them sleep, pills to keep them calm when awake.
Some of the men find solace with one another. The bonds of friendship and solidarity they forged down the mine are now stronger than those with their own families. Others refuse to see one another at all – jealousy over who is appearing where, appearance money and fame have driven them apart. That is the men.
Their wives and partners have to live with them, desperately trying to work out how to cope with quiet lives blown apart. For them, of course, there has been no help on offer. Occasionally the invitations include the families: they all went to Disneyland. Elizabeth with baby Esperanza has been approached. She and Ariel took the baby to Germany for a brief but paid studio appearance: "Five minutes. Show the baby… No interesting questions." Elizabeth smiles, puzzled at all the effort to get them thousands of miles to Europe for so little return. Now she has sworn there will be no more trips.
A quiet, modest and thoughtful woman, Elizabeth still checks with her kids if there are any photographers hanging around outside their house. You can tell she hates it all. Returning to normal life has been made more difficult because, once the hero status wore off, local jealousy set in. Neighbours see the cameras and journalists coming back again and again. The trauma of what really happened last year to both Ariel and his wife are now distant memories – and those living nearby only see the glamour and the supposed rewards. It is as if the neighbours wish they too had been "lucky enough" to be trapped down the mine.
Elizabeth is clear: "They ask in order to know how you feel; but what we want is to forget all of this. At least for me, I'd rather forget everything. I want no more. I just want my husband back… I want the life we had before."
She describes how Ariel does not sleep properly. At New Year he simply disappeared to the south of the country at the last moment, leaving Elizabeth at home with their two young boys and a baby girl. There were no explanations. He returned a few days later, uncertain about why he had gone. Elizabeth smiles sadly and shakes her head when asked if she and Ariel have discussed what happened to him down the mine. "I don't want to disturb him more." They have a joint faith that holds them together and in February he fulfilled a promise he had made down the mine and they presented the baby to the Virgin Mary, patron saint of miners, during the annual week of celebrations in Copiapó.
A couple of the miners have grabbed their 15 minutes of fame and run with it. The Elvis Presley impersonator, Edison Peña, 34, has followed through on the showman image he built up down the mine. Though no more than an irregular jogger before the accident, the images of him "running the tunnels" have resulted in invitations and appearance fees to compete in both the New York and Tokyo marathons since coming out. He moved to the capital, Santiago, and has made appearances wherever possible. His lifelong passion for Elvis Presley resulted in what he called "his trip of a lifetime" to Graceland and performances of "Blue Suede Shoes" on Italian and German TV. Though uncertain of the exact words, his sheer bravura and showmanship make him a star turn.
His partner, Angélica, and her four-year-old child have had their life in Copiapó uprooted to try to keep up with him. She struggles to understand quite who she is now living with. She says: "The mine has given me another Edison. His nature and his principles were all left down there."
She attempts to manage his dates and to focus his activities – trying to turn the singing into a possible career in motivational speaking. They performed successfully together to business people at a packed conference in the O2 centre in London earlier in the year. Both are aware there is a small window of time to establish themselves – but the cost has been high.
It is a constant struggle as Edison veers between a rational understanding of what is going on and the darkness he clearly experienced down the mine. There is an underlying anger in him that occasionally explodes in shouting matches and drunken binges. He has frittered much of the money away partying with his brother. Even his mother wonders whether her son should not be hospitalised. Angélica is bitter: "If both God and the devil were down that mine, I think that probably the devil took him." This spring Angélica persuaded him to go into detox. She – as with the other women I have met – has not once had any offer of support or help from the authorities. No one thought that they might be victims, too.
Last autumn, the world enjoyed a good news story and moved on, vaguely expecting that these new celebrities were now made for life – the least they could expect for the experience they went through. Edison the runner has earned and spent a good deal of money. Mario Sepúlveda and a couple of others are forging a living as motivational speakers for international corporations. But the majority are now back home, the government's income guarantees beginning to run out, and facing life again.
It is shocking to think that Ariel Ticona has gone back to the mines to earn a living – to the resigned horror of Elizabeth and their children. Many others are faced with the same reality. What next? How to survive? There is no huge fund set up to keep them in clover for the rest of their lives. Those who thought that international fame meant millions have been proved very wrong.
Of course, lawyers for the miners are taking both the owners of the mine and the government to court. Lilly Ramírez is resolutely clear that lessons must be learned. While she thanks God that Mario emerged alive, this is not a story about miracles. "This was bad management," she says. "If only the owners thought about the men who worked for them and not just earning a few more pennies, leaving people working in terrible conditions…" But as with corporate negligence cases the world over, judgments will be a matter of years, if they are lucky.
Meanwhile the families are left to cope with that underlying trauma. Down at the bottom of the mine for those 69 days last year these men faced themselves and their humanity in ways that we can barely imagine. Many promised themselves, and often God, that they would be totally different people if only they could emerge alive. They promised they would be better husbands and fathers, better people. No doubt they meant it. Stuck in the belly of the earth, they thought they understood the world and their lives in a different light.
Reality has proved so much more complex. And for the wives and partners who waited for them the past months have proved equally painful. From 2,000 feet down, Mario promised Lilly that they would get married. Two wedding dates have come and gone. The promise remains unfulfilled.
5 August 2010: 33 miners trapped after a collapse at the San José gold and copper mine in the Atacama desert in northern Chile. It is not known whether any of them are alive.
6 August: Laurence Golborne, Chile's mining minister, cuts short a visit to Ecuador to lead the rescue mission.
7 August: A second collapse blocks access to the lower parts of the mine, making any chance of a rescue through the mine itself impossible.
10 August: The first probes are sent down through the rock in an attempt to reach the shelter where experts hoped they would find at least some of the 33 still alive.
22 August: 17 days after the accident, rescuers hear tapping noises on one of their probes – the first sign of life. When it is brought back to the surface, there is a note attached saying: "Estamos bien en el refugio los 33" – "We are fine in the refuge, the 33".
23 August: The international media descend on "Camp Hope" to hear President Piñera declare: "It will take months to get them out. It will take time, but it doesn't matter how long it takes to have a happy ending." Food and water are sent down to the miners.
27 August: The miners send a video up to the surface, which gives a guided tour of the shelter and shows them playing dominoes.
30 August: Drilling begins on the pilot hole for Plan A, the first of three rescue plans, aiming for the shelter housing the miners.
8 September: The miners watch a football match between Chile and Ukraine on a miniature projector that has been sent down to them.
14 September: Trapped miner Ariel Ticona's wife, Elizabeth, gives birth to baby girl. He sends a message asking for her to be called Esperanza – Spanish for "hope".
17 September: The pilot hole for Plan B, which is aiming for the workshop a few hundred metres from the shelter, is completed.
19 September: The process of widening the Plan B pilot hole begins to create a space big enough for a rescue capsule. The miners work in shifts to clear the debris.
24 September: The miners have now been trapped 50 days underground, longer than anyone else in history.
29 September: Mayor Brunilda Gonzalez announces the intention of 27 families of the trapped miners to sue the Chilean government for at least $27m.
9 October: The Plan B drill breaks through to the miners' workshop six weeks after drilling began.
12 October: Rescuers go down the escape shaft to begin evacuation of the miners using a special capsule designed by the Chilean navy.
13 October: 69 days after the accident the first miner, Florencio Avalos, emerges just after midnight to an estimated TV audience of 1.5 billion.