Los 33 find it tough on the surface

The Chilean miners enjoyed their taste of fame, but are now realising they still have to earn a living. By David Usborne

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When President Sebastian Pinera arrives in the dusty town of Copiapo in northern Chile today to mark the first anniversary of the collapse of the nearby San Jose mine, only some of "los 33" will be attending.

Some are too angry, too ill or too disconsolate.

When they emerged, smiling, under the arc lights out of that rescue capsule from half a mile underground, a full 69 days after the mine collapsed, these men, most from humble backgrounds and barely literate, found a world aching to embrace them. The rewards for their survival and for surviving as a team looked set to be swift and shared evenly between them.

But the cloud that will settle over today's commemoration in Copiapo; that which shrouded the opening of a special exhibition in their honour at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington last week, speaks of another reality: their celebrity was fleeting and most now are struggling with dark dreams and getting food on the table.

Of the group, four are back working underground, scraping for copper and gold, two are running fruit stalls and two more have small grocery shops. Seven are involved, with varying degrees of success, in the motivational speech business. According to Chile's El Mercurio newspaper, 15 men are unemployed. Two have tested positive for a potentially fatal lung disease caused by inhaling silica particles.

Only one of the group seems to have a way to make a better living from his experience: Mario Sepulveda, who stood out as the star of the rescue drama with his playful emergence from the rescue shaft has, with the help of his wife, formed a company to nurture what appears to have become a burgeoning motivational speaking career.

Perhaps more visible outside Chile than any of the miners has been Edison Pena, who ran in the New York marathon and has showed off his Elvis Presley impersonations on the talk show circuit. Yet his wife recently told the paper that the attention has drained away and their life together "is as dark as the mine was".

Not even President Pinera, who surely also expected dividends of his own from the happy ending to the mine disaster, has profited. His popularity ratings have halved since the crisis, from 60 per cent to just 30 per cent.

Still, it is undoubtedly the miners with the greatest journey ahead of them. In their own country they are fighting a perception either that they have enriched themselves or, by contrast, that they are greedy for compensation because of two lawsuits they have filed jointly, one against the government for $10m and another against the mine's owners for $17m, alleging safety negligence. Mr Sepulveda, who travelled with government dignitaries to the Smithsonian opening, defended the legal action. "Things should be done properly. If a worker commits an error of this calamity, the company isn't going to think twice about punishing him," he said. Luis Urzua, who was the shift foreman, agrees. "We filed this lawsuit so people understand that everyone has the right to sue when things aren't being done correctly," he commented.

While it's true that the 33 – either collectively or separately – have spent some of the last few months fêted in places as varied as a CNN studio in Los Angeles, Disney World, the Acropolis in Athens, Israel and even Old Trafford among Manchester United fans, those journeys did not deliver any pay cheques.

The invitations have tailed off now and the hopes of those unable to work rest on cash coming from the lawsuits or from a book and film deal that, after months of negotiation, has just been sealed with Hollywood bigshot Mike Medavoy, one of the producers of Oscar-winner Black Swan.

"Many remain traumatised," said Jean Romagnoli, a doctor who helped oversee the rescue operation.

"They are taking uppers, downers, stabilisers. They don't understand why they are taking them.

"It is not pills they need, but the tools to deal with fame and the tools to renovate themselves."

He added: "In any other country they would have been national heroes. Why have they been abandoned?"

Comments