Hector Tobar, author of Chilean miners saga, recalls their passion for family

September 28, 2015 

In Chile’s Atacama Desert, miners risk their lives and lungs when they descend deep into the earth to extract copper and gold from a 100-year-old mine.

In August 2010, a mountain shifted, causing a massive explosion and trapping 33 men in the San Jose Mine in Copiapo. Blocking the workers’ path was a 770,000-ton rock that was twice the weight of New York’s Empire State Building. The blue-gray volcanic rock also was twice as hard as granite. The shift supervisor, Luis Urzua, compared it to the stone placed over Jesus’ tomb.

How these men endured darkness right out of Dante’s Inferno, paralyzing fear, stifling heat and extreme hunger is an inspiring tale of survival and teamwork woven by Hector Tobar, a journalist and novelist, in "Deep Down Dark."

Tobar, a 52-year-old Los Angeles native, was part of a team of reporters that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of riots in Los Angeles in 1992. As bureau chief in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Mexico City for The Los Angeles Times, Tobar explored Latin America. In 1962, his parents emigrated from Guatemala to the U.S. while the Cuban missile crisis dominated the news.

Tobar, who had exclusive access to the miners, conducted hundreds of hours of interviews. The men survived for 69 days by organizing themselves into work crews, rationing canned tuna by the spoonful, eating cookies and praying daily. They also agreed that they would sell their story and divide the proceeds. "The 33," a movie about their ordeal based on Tobar’s book, stars Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche and opens nationwide on Nov. 13.

The fact that all 33 men survived is miraculous; rescuers who labored around the clock knew their efforts had less than a 1 percent chance of success. On the 17th day of their confinement, a drill bit broke through and a handwritten message, attached to it, was heard around the world: "We are well in the refuge. The 33."

The refuge, a room that held 30 men, was where the miners slept, ate, argued and told stories.

Western Pennsylvanians recall the rescue of nine men from Somerset County’s Quecreek Mine in July 2002. Those miners were 240 feet underground. The Chilean miners, Tobar said during a telephone interview, were 2,000 feet underground.

The same type of cylindrical steel capsule used to free men from the Quecreek Mine was used in Chile, too. On Oct. 9, 2010, American miner Jeff Hart and members of his drilling crew were less than a foot away from reaching the Chilean miners. The 33 men were freed Oct. 13.

These miners — who went to work to support their wives, children and girlfriends — didn’t arrive home at 9 o’clock for dinner, disrupting the normal domestic routines of many families.

Underground, the men coped in various ways. Victor Segovia kept a diary. A tearful Omar Reygadas walked away to the cab of a front loader to cry in private, then summoned his strength. Jose Henriquez led the men in prayer. The scrappy Mario Sepulveda emerged as a leader, telling his co-workers, "The only thing I do is live."

Above them, a camp made up of family members gathered, including their leader, Maria Segovia, who told Chile’s minister of mining that she was not leaving without her younger brother, Dario.

In a single eloquent sentence, Tobar described the lesson of Maria’s life: "You defend your humanity with patience and determination, by making your voice heard to those who judge you a lesser being for your timeworn clothes, your callused hands and your sunburned skin."

Many people from Latin America who grow up in poverty in the U.S. feel stigmatized by that experience, but it can also be a source of strength, the author said.

After the mountain shifted, no one knew if the men were alive or dead. At Camp Esperanza, or Camp Hope, a carnival atmosphere ruled. A clown entertained the children, bands played music and celebrities appeared.

"It became a spectacle. The government was aware that people were watching. They helped to create this spectacle, too. They transmitted the first images" of the miners, Tobar said.

When he was offered the opportunity to write the men’s story, the author was thrilled because he has spent his whole career writing about working people.

"No women were allowed in the mine. But everybody went into the mine for a woman — a wife, sister, daughter or mother. It was about this passion for family," Tobar said.

"I saw the capacity of human beings to heal themselves and to use the strength that they have from their culture and their experience to survive even the most extreme conditions."




McClatchy-Tribune Information Services