Hector Tobar gets the inside story of the 33 Chilean miners in ‘Deep Down Dark’

By Jeff Baker | The Oregonian/OregonLive
on September 09, 2015 at 5:00 AM, updated September 09, 2015 at 5:02 AM

The ordeal of 33 Chilean miners, trapped more than 2,000 feet underground after a cave-in, held the world’s attention in the late summer of 2010. The men survived for 69 days before being safely rescued one at a time as millions watched on live TV.

It was a story of courage, faith and brotherhood, and the miners, while still trapped underground, decided to sell the rights to it together and not let one man profit at the expense of the others. Movie and book rights were sold as a package: Hector Tobar, a journalist at The Los Angeles Times and the author of three previous books, was given exclusive access to the miners and wrote “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free.”

Tobar’s book was widely praised when it was published last year. It’s now out in paperback, just ahead of “The 33,” a movie that opens Nov. 13. Tobar left the newspaper business and now teaches journalism at the University of Oregon. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

How’d you wind up at Oregon?

I went up there a couple of years ago to speak about one of my books, my novel “The Barbarian Nurseries.” At a dinner with faculty afterwards I said “if you know of a job, let me know.” One thing led to another and I had a visiting professorship for a year and now I’m an assistant professor with tenure track, which is really wonderful.

The moral of that story is it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Yeah, exactly (laughs). Good things have always happened when I’ve asked.

I imagine that when you talk about the Chilean miners everyone has heard of the event but doesn’t know the details. What do they want to know from you?

I think that by now the story has passed from people’s consciousness and has gone from news story to legend (laughs) and folklore. It’s part of the folklore of the world. I worked on this book for more than three years and when I would tell people what I was working on the first question was “What are they doing today?” and the second was “What about the guy who had the mistress and the wife waiting for him?” I would get those two questions again and again.

Now it’s more people wanting to know the story and what really took place. I wanted the book to establish itself as a tale and not just a journalistic recounting, to show the beauty and suffering and other things novelists are interested in. People are approaching it as more than just the facts.

That must have been one of your goals in writing the book.

I told the guys when I first met them that this was like “The Odyssey” of the 21st century and you guys are like Odysseus, just trying to get back home. That’s what the story ended up being about — a bunch of guys who are buried in a hole and want to get back home. They went through all these adventures and became “The Odyssey” of the 21st century and it was my job to be their Homer (laughs).

That was the goal — I don’t know if I achieved it, but books are wonderful things. They last for years and years and can have second lives. My first novel just got picked up as a paperback by FSG and it came out 15 years ago.

You’ve worked on some big stories but this must have been the biggest story of your career, especially given the exclusive access you had.

Oh yeah, I’m sure it will be the biggest story I’ll ever work on as a journalist. I knew I had a lot of time to work on and when you work on a big project you have to look at it as a lot of small tasks on a long journey. Each task, each scene or paragraph or character, you spend a day or two on each one and take it one step at a time.

I was so lucky to have to the resources of the movie production that was working on the movie that was based on my book. They flew me out to Chile a couple of times. They helped corral the miners into groups so I could interview them. They helped me get into another miner so I could see what it was like. It was a daunting project, but I think having written three books before really helped as well.

Did the movie company buy the rights to the miners’ story, and you came along with that?

Yes, pretty much. The miners sold everything in a package, the book and the movie rights.

If you got the UO job by asking, how were you able to get the exclusive story of the Chilean miners?

My agent called up and asked me (laughs). My agent was at the end of a chain that began underground when the miners had their final meeting and made a pact that they would stay together. They contacted some attorneys in Chile and those attorneys contacted William Morris Endeavor in New York and that’s how I was approached about the gig. I then had to speak to another agent at William Morris Endeavor who was a fluent Spanish speaker who wanted to make sure I was not a faux Latino (laughs).

Then when I got to Chile I had to win these guys over. I learned very quickly that they were stressed out about many things. They were stressed out because they had gotten some money as an advance against the film rights but they were realizing it was not going to be enough to live on forever because everything they got had to be divided 33 ways. It wasn’t going to be enough and they were going to have to go back to work and there was a lot of tension about the whole project that I had to navigate correctly. They could have easily turned against me and seen me as a symbol of the outside world and the people who were trying to (mess with) them.

Thirty-three people is a lot to agree on anything. How were they able to agree not to profit off each other and stick to that agreement?

I think there’s a lot of peer pressure. That’s No. 1. They’re working-class guys and there’s a stronger sense of class identity and solidarity than there is in other parts of the world and the U.S. Then after a time they realized that there weren’t going to be any more offers for anything.

After awhile, talking to me became a source of catharsis. It was like “Here’s someone who’s interested in me. Here’s someone who really cares about what happened.”

A lot of the questions they got were from people who treated them like reality televison stars instead of as the survivors of a traumatic event. To me it was a complex and emotional story, and I communicated that every time I spoke with them.

How close did the miners come to not getting rescued?

Very close. There was only maybe a 5 percent chance of these drills reaching them. The men said that if they heard the drills stop, the strongest among them would have taken whatever reserves of strength they had and tried to find a way out. They were close to death, definitely.

One thing you’ve talked about a couple of times is the obvious post-traumatic stress these men suffered.

There wasn’t a program set up to help them sufficiently tailored to the extreme nature of the experience. These men set a world record. They were trapped underground longer than anyone in history with extreme conditions of heat and humidity and the mountain constantly rumbling above them. They lived with the possibility of death and in horrible conditions for a long time … Some of them are doing fine and some have suffered terrible relapses, nightmares and flashbacks years later.

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