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Journalist given exclusive access shares stories of trapped Chilean miners

The 2010 Chilean mine collapse attracted attention far beyond South America, but only one journalist was given exclusive rights to their story. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Hector Tobar, author of “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” about the spiritual experiences the miners found underground and the difficulties faced after their rescue.

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  • , Author, “Deep Down Dark:

    HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally tonight, arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown talks with author Hector Tobar about his book on a group of Chilean miners who were trapped underground for more than two months after a cave-in sealed them inside their mine.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    It was an extraordinary story that captivated the world. In 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped below the earth in a collapsed mine for 69 days.

    For the first 17 days, they had no contact with the outside and were feared dead. But after a powerful drill broke through the rock, the story took a bizarre new twist, as the miners found hope and found themselves international celebrities.

    HECTOR TOBAR The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free”:

    They were still trapped in this mountain that was rumbling, that threatened to kill them still.

    They were waiting to get out. They were desperate to get out, but they also thought, we might be rich. We might actually have a story the world wants to hear. And so they made this pact underground. They decided that they would share, collectively, the rights to a book. They would tell their story to one writer.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    Hector Tobar, who I spoke with recently at the Miami Book Fair, would write the book “Deep Down Dark,” telling of the mine collapse, the rescue effort and media spectacle that followed, and, most of all, the men themselves and the harrowing ordeal they endured.

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    Well, it was an extremely traumatic event. It was a psychological torture.

    Even working there on an ordinary day was tough. The temperature was 90 degrees. They are 2,000 feet underground. They have to get to the mine through this stone highway in the mountain that spirals down to the bottom. It’s 98 percent humidity.

    Most of them didn’t have breakfast on an ordinary day because they would throw it up after a couple of hours working in these conditions. So the mine collapses. Huge stone crushes the road out. It blocks their way out with a curtain of stone, a guillotine of stone. And they are slowly dying the first 17 days. And it was a very existential and it became a very spiritual thing, because most of the men were fathers, were providers for their family.

    And they realized that their families might never see them again. They might never be able to provide for their families again. When they started to die, when they started to die of starvation, they reflected on, what kind of father was I? Was I a good father? Was I a bad father? Was I a good husband?

    Many of them felt they were being punished for what they had done in their surface lives: I drank too much. I did drugs. I’m being punished.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, of course, in a group dynamic like that, under extraordinary stress…

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    Right.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    … things happen, right?

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    Exactly.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    Leaders aren’t leaders. Other people become leaders. The group changes.

    But what — what struck you about what they went through in that regard?

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    Well, one of the first things many of the men wanted to tell me was the man who people think was the leader underground wasn’t the leader.

    Luis Urzua, he was the shift foreman. He abdicated his responsibility on the second night. And he didn’t take charge. Many of the men wanted me to know that. The other thing they wanted to tell me, which was their big secret, was that, on the first night, several of the men stole some of the food, the emergency supplies.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    And so they starved a little bit more than they would have, thanks to the desperation of a few men.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    Incredibly, they survived, brought to the surface one by one, until all were there in a joyous celebration for them, their families, their country and the world.

    As Hector Tobar’s book shows, though, the celebration didn’t last.

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    Unfortunately, I think, almost every man had his breakdown. Almost every man had his crisis because they had been tortured by the mountain. The mountain was like a monster while they were in it that was growling at them for 10 weeks.

    It left them with this profound trauma. Some of them had it the first three, four months. They were shattered. I interviewed many of the men who were trembling when I first spoke to them about what had happened, when I went to their homes.

    Others didn’t have their crisis until a year or two years later. So I think, every man, they really went through something that was incomparable in human history. In fact, they were trapped longer than anyone in human history. And so it was a very deeply shattering emotional experience.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    You mean tragedy and celebrity hits them at the same time.

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    Right.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    They come up. The world is watching. They’re famous. And then what? Is there a letdown? Were they expecting to stay famous, to become rich?

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    Right.

    When they came out, they knew that they were the most famous miners on earth. They had been called national heroes even while they were still trapped. Many of them believed they would never have to work again, because a certain Chilean millionaire had already given them $10,000 each, which is a king’s ransom in Chile for a working man.

    Many of them believed that, from the film and the book, they would get rich and never have to work. And it turned out that the money didn’t really last very long. You know, they ended up — many of them have to go back into mining. In fact, there are several of the men who went into underground mining months after being rescued.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really?

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    So you can imagine, being pulled out of the earth while a world audience watches, and, six months later, you are just a working stiff again who has to go back underground and work in a mine.

    And for some of the men who did that, that was a very difficult emotional experience.

    JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the book is “Deep Down Dark.”

    Hector Tobar, thank you so much.

    HECTOR TOBAR:

    Thank you for having me.

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