One year after their mine collapsed, 'Los 33' face a new nightmare

Chile's underground heroes are not living happily ever after, discovers David Usborne

Click to follow

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 from 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 evenly shared between them.

But the cloud that will settle over today's commemoration in Copiapo and that 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 men 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.

Still, it is undoubtedly the miners with the greatest journey ahead of them. In their own country they are fighting a perception either that that they have enriched themselves or, by contrast, that they are greedy for compensation because of two lawsuits they have jointly filed, one against the government for $10 million and another against the mine's owners for $17 million 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 told the Associated Press. 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 together or separately have spent some of the last months feted in places as varied as a CNN studio in Los Angeles, Disney World, the Acropolis, Israel and even Old Trafford among Manchester United fans, those journeys did not deliver 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 producer Michael Medavoy, the maker of Black Swan.

"Many remain traumatised," Jean Romagnoli, a doctor who helped oversee the rescue, told The Washington Post. "They are taking uppers, downers, stabilisers... 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?"

Where are they now?

Luis Urzua, 55

The foreman of the team, Urzua is making it as a public speaker. He recently travelled to Los Angeles to receive an award from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre with Tom Cruise at his side.

Jose Henriquez, 57

A vicar, Henriquez led his fellow miners in prayer while trapped in the darkness. He has since travelled in Asia to preach and was even invited to lead a prayer breakfast at the White House.

Jose Ojeda, 56

Forced back to the mines by poverty, he found he couldn't take it. "Inside the mine, in the darkness, I started to feel like I was suffocating, dizzy," he said.

Pablo Rojas, 47

Once the celebrity attention came to an end he too was forced back to the mines. "I've gone back, because it's my life. I've been doing it from the age of 16, and I don't know how to do anything else."

Comments