The story of the Chilean miners, Los 33, was incredible. They survived a catastrophic mining accident that left them trapped 2,300 feet underground for 69 days of endless darkness. As it happened in 2010, it made for a gripping, dramatic news story, especially when we found out that — a miracle! — they were all alive, seventeen days after the initial collapse.
And yet just as quick as it happened, once the men were freed, the story, as it was, was done. What else could be written about their lives? What else could be written about the accident? Why hasn’t there been an inspiring Oscar-bait movie made about this event yet? (The answer: there is one in the works with Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche.) When I picked up Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free, the terrific new book by novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hector Tobar, I was surprised to realize that there was far more of the story than we saw on the twenty-four-hour news stations.
Tobar has done an impressive piece of reporting: talking to the minders, their families, their psychologists, and everyone else whose lives touched this miracle in any way possible, he’s able to reconstruct the ordeal in pinpoint detail. Food was one of the main worries and realities of the miners while they were buried alive in their prison. Tobar’s novelist’s eye means that you are there, imagining what it’s like to be starving, with 1/33 of a canned peach slice, fingernail sized, as your only sustenance:
“Like most of the other men, Mario allows that hint of syrup on fruit to linger on his tongue like a communal wafer, trying to hold onto it for as long as possible, managing to keep it there for quite a long time — until another miner bumps into him and he accidentally swallows his morsel, and he wants to slug the guy, he’s so angry.”
There’s a beautiful balance of straightforward journalism — you understand the economic lives of these miners, what their days consisted of — with Tobar’s vivid description. His rendering of the accident, which was excerpted in The New Yorker, is particularly magnificent; the mountain as churning, hungry, hell-wave, crashing down upon these men. And even though (spoiler!) you know how the story goes, you’re in suspense as to how these men survived, what this live burial did to their psyches, and how they found the fortitude to keep going. They had no food down there. They thought this was a routine fuckup and they’d be out in three days, not 69. When they had to scramble, they ended up literally making stone soup from dirty machine water. When life and rescue looks like a distinct possibility for these men in hell, it’s enough to bring a tear to your eye.
Tobar interviewed all the miners, and as a result we understand their twisting, changing group dynamics. Mario Sepuvelda was the breakout media star, the “man with a heart of a dog,” and he would, sometimes, despite himself, cause conflict within the group with his boisterous and gregarious ways. Luis Urzua is their supervisor and their leader. Eventually they sign agreements to present themselves as “Los 33,” below ground and above ground, after the rescue, and Tobar ably shows the weirdness of coming back to the earth after being inside of it, alongside the instant celebrity for being “the guy that survived a miracle,” as part of a group of men. It’s so strange: “Yonni wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes and puts on his old helmet, and sits in the living room in the dark with the mining lamp on, as if he were back inside the caverns of the San Jose, listening to the distant thunder.”
There’s an eeriness here. We feel the darkness that the miners dealt with, to be entombed in a cave 2,300 feet below the earth’s surface, waiting for the certainty of death — and then it’s thwarted. It’s a miracle, and to write about it with the proper amount of soul is an impressive feat. The reader is disoriented, in the miners’ shoes, coming to an understanding of the dire straits that led to this situation, and the way that people can overcome what seems like fate. In Tobar’s hands, this extraordinary story carries a profound amount of weight showing how the human spirit can survive in impossible circumstances. He’s given us a gift of a book: vivid, honest, and true.