They were showered with gifts and money, but a year after the collapse, many of ‘Los 33’ are facing poverty
Jonathan Franklin in Santiago
Thursday 4 August 2011 15.27 EDT
When the San Jose copper mine collapsed on 5 August last year, the 33 men trapped underground were convinced that they would slowly starve to death. But two months later, a drill broke through to their refuge 700 metres below ground, and, after a painstaking rescue operation, they were eventually hauled to the surface before television cameras from around the world.
For a brief, glorious, moment, “Los 33” became a symbol of unity and faith, their rescue an almost unbelievable parable of survival against the odds. The men became superstars: they were cheered by 75,000 football fans at Wembley and invited on all-expenses-paid trips to Disneyland, Israel and Greece.
One year after the cave-in, however, most have been returned to poverty, and some are even worse off than before the disaster. Several are struggling with the psychological and physical trauma of their ordeal, and all are struggling with the mixed blessings brought by instant – and unsought – fame.
“We were like rock stars. People climbed trees to see us,” said Samuel Avalos, who had only been working at the mine for a few months before the collapse, and has now returned to selling pirate CDs on the street.
After the rescue, all 33 received free motorbikes from the Kawasaki corporation, and around $15,000 (£9,000) from Chilean businessman Leonardo Farkas, but the money has long since run out. Avalos’s only regular income is a $500 monthly medical leave cheque, less than half his salary at the mine. “Will you buy my motorbike?” he asks, mid-interview. “Or I have a flag signed by all 33 miners. How much is that worth?”
Another miner, Osman Araya used part of his $15,000 to buy a van and now sells vegetables in Copiapo market. Dario Segovia, a former drill operator, sells fruit in the same market. Araya was recently critical of his fellow miners and launched a deliberate call for help when he told Chilean newspaper La Tercera, that “all is not well with the 33”.
Many have psychological and medical problems, said Dr Jean Romagnoli, a lead doctor in the rescue operation.
“They are taking uppers, downers, stabilisers, I think they are over prescribed … They don’t understand why they are taking them but they are fed up with pills,” he said. “It is not pills they need, but the tools to deal with fame and the tools to renovate themselves.”
Psychological treatment has been co-ordinated by the government and a private health insurance company, but many miners find the treatment insufficient, and family members say they ought to be included in the sessions.
A handful of the miners – including the gregarious Mario Sepulveda, who acted as the miners’ spokesmen in videos they recorded underground – have built careers giving speeches and public appearances, but most are suffering from financial and psychological problems. “They are about to hit very, very hard times,” said Romagnoli, who is in close contact with many of them. “They do not know how they are going to get through the next month.”
Yonni Barrios, the miner who served as a doctor to his companions – and gained notoriety when both his wife and lover showed up at the rescue – now has silicosis, an irreversible lung disease.
Last month, producer Mike Medavoy announced that he had bought the rights to their story. The deal’s details have not been released, but filming is expected to begin in 2012. Medavoy has said he will focus on just a few of the 33 men, but a contract that the miners signed with their lawyers last December stipulates that they will all share certain revenues – including any authorised book, movie or collective testimony.
Meanwhile, the men are hoping to receive settlements from two lawsuits: one against the government for allowing the unsafe mine to remain open after years of warnings, and one against the mine owners. They are seeking $541,000 each from the government and an undetermined amount from the company.
When the news broke last month that the miners planned to sue the same government that had organised the estimated $11m rescue operation, they were denounced as money grabbers. They shot back that they only had to be rescued because the mine was so outdated, with unsafe working conditions long recognised by the government.
That argument has been echoed by local politicians such as Brunilda Gonzalez, mayor of Caldera, who said the government was still not paying enough attention to safety regulations. She has promised to boycott a commemorative ceremony organised by President Sebastian Piñera on Friday in Copiapo. “We as a municipality are not going to participate because this is all a media and political show,” she said.
Araya has also said he will not attend official ceremonies, because the other survivors have failed to honour a pact to share revenue from speaking engagements and motivational talks. “I want to separate myself from all this. I am not participating in anything because it pains me to see how [the other survivors] have behaved. They’re just looking for the TV cameras,” he said.
Romagnoli lamented that the men had not been converted into ambassadors for workers’ safety. “In any other country they would have been national heroes … building up the country’s image around the world. Why have they been abandoned?”
Living proof fame is a double-edged sword
The charismatic leader who acted as a spokesman for the 33 in their underground video has taken his show above ground. “Super Mario” now lectures around the world. In Chile, he volunteers at schools in poor areas, giving motivational lectures. Criticised by other miners for taking the lion’s share of the cash, he seems a natural in his new role as showman.
The calm mining veteran led one of the three shifts underground, has been nominated official spokesman for the 33 men, and has travelled widely to deliver speeches. A former union leader, Reygadas has been key in organising the miners’ financial affairs.
A former professional footballer, Lobos was the only one of the 33 to have an inkling of the double-edged sword that is fame. Wisely limiting his exposure to the media, he has chosen to rebuild his life with his first love – football. Today Lobos travels abroad as invited guest of Fifa and works full time at a Chilean football club.
The jogger who ran the New York marathon and briefly appeared on the Letterman show is torn between his high-voltage renditions of Elvis songs and the trauma of the ordeal. Volatile in interviews, Pena has suffered deeply from the psychological effects of his entrapment.
At 63, Gomez was the oldest of the miners and had difficulty breathing even before a massive rock collapse trapped him in the bottom of the San Jose mine. Today he is diagnosed with more advanced silicosis and will probably be placed on full medical pension shortly. Despite more than 50 years working as a miner, Gomez can no longer avoid the flashbacks from the collapse. His family stays close, allowing Gomez the support he needs.
Ridiculed by the press for having a lover and a wife waiting for him topside, Barrios has been besieged by bizarre offers to capitalise on his infidelity, including a $100,000 offer if he would dump his lover and return to his wife. As well as the paparazzi, Barrios is stalked by encroaching lung problems. Diagnosed with silicosis, he is now banned from working in the mines and runs a business from his home in Copiapo, the city near the collapsed mine.