One year on, where is the fairy-tale ending for Chile's miners?
The ordeal of Los 33 began on 5 August last year. One of them, Jose Henriquez, talks exclusively to Kunal Dutta after their dramatic rescue
Sunday 31 July 2011
Until last year, Jose Henriquez was just a drill master working deep in the bowels of the Atacama desert, in one of Chile's infamous copper mines. The 56-year-old, a quiet veteran of his industry, had spent more than 30 years in squalid conditions below ground.
On 5 August last year, his life changed. An explosion in the San Jose Mine near Copiapo trapped Mr Henriquez and 32 of his fellow workers. For the next 70 days they became the focus of hopes and prayers from around the world. From a life of benighted obscurity, Mr Henriquez became a household name, beamed into well-wishers' homes via television screens around the globe. He became an icon, holding trapped men together during one the most ambitious and dramatic underground rescues in history.
The emotional toll of their 69-day ordeal revealed much about the miners' characters. Mr Henriquez was soon the group's unofficial "pastor", conducting daily prayer sessions and bolstering spirits through some of the darkest moments.
On 14 October he was reunited with his wife at the surface of the mine, the 24th man to be rescued. A year on from the explosion, he speaks exclusively to The Independent on Sunday.
"As a miner, you become used to accidents. You sometimes even come close to death. But what transpired a year ago was more than that: it united five continents in prayer and fasting, and irrevocably changed the direction of my life.
The incident itself happened so quickly that I still remember the moment it sunk in that we were actually facing death. Hope of a rescue had begun to wear thin and I had to accept that there was actually no escape. The group had started goading each other with jokes of cannibalism, which started off as humorous but gradually took on a darker significance. Some certainly did consider it, but I doubt it would ever actually have come to that.
When you're in groups, there are always those who are positive and upbeat and those who will succumb to adversity. But during those times what truly united us was prayer. Praying every single day was a vital support for us. It kept us together as a team, while faith and trust kept us alive. If there is someone who deserves the credit for our fate, it is Jesus, for he does not need doors to get into rooms and can be everywhere at the same time. It is not the miners that are the heroes in this story – it is the sheer will of God that kept us alive and pervaded over the most audacious rescue mission.
I consider myself very lucky, because the accident gave me a sense of spiritual purpose. But it has also been very difficult. My age and health make it hard for me to find work now, and I have been unable to return to the mine since the accident. Many of the others have moved further afield.
Despite everything that happened, we are yet to receive any kind of compensation from the San Esteban Mining Company. A whole year has passed now and we have heard absolutely nothing. Very little seems to have been done to investigate the lack of safety that led to the accident, while the owners and administrators have refused to accept their responsibility.
There was talk of the government giving a pension to those who are too old to work at the mine, but none of that has happened.
Our only real hope was that there might be a film or a book but, despite a lot of talk and news reports, none of this has been confirmed with me, and it's hard to see anything changing. So far there has been much talk and excitement, but nothing in terms of money or royalties. Luckily, I've always been disciplined at saving. My wife and I have a small business and that's how we make ends meet. It doesn't give us much, just enough to survive, which is more important now than ever. But money is getting scarcer. There's only our lawsuit; we are still waiting to see what will happen with that. But, like many of the other promises, it hasn't amounted to anything.
I haven't seen many of my fellow miners this year and have instead relied on trips with the church to spread the word of God. That's my new mission. I have already visited Europe, Ireland and America to give my testimony. This week, I will be in the US talking to pastors and will be in Washington for the opening of an exhibition that will tell others of the fate that we have endured.
I hope that one day all of thisfinally passes so that we can start a meaningful life again, to go back to work or to find an alternative way to make a living.
My message to the world is to look for the Lord. He is a God who is wonderful and alive and real; he answers prayers of those in anguish, pain and need; and he heals the wounded. Wherever I'm called, and wherever I find myself, I will spread the same message."
Translation by Ernesto Priego
Tales of the 33: Mixed fortunes for the men who spent 69 days underground
Jose Henriquez, 56, is one of the 33 miners who spent 69 days trapped in darkness under 700,000 tons of rock in Chile's Atacama desert. For 17 days the group was cut off from the outside world, relying on rations intended to last 10 men just 48 hours. What followed was one of most audacious rescue missions, bankrolled by the Chilean government.
Nearly half of the Chilean miners have asked to be allowed to retire early on state pensions. Fourteen of the 33 men, including Luis Urzua, the shift supervisor who helped maintain morale with his rigorous routines, have been unable to overcome the physical and psychological effects of their ordeal. At least 31 of the 33 are suing the government for negligence, saying there was a lack of security at the site, and demanding $540,000 each in compensation.
Mario Sepulveda, 41, whose enigmatic personality made him an affable front man, often giving viewers a far rosier version of events than those suggested by footage of some of his more emaciated colleagues, has become a motivational speaker.
Edison Pena, regarded as one of the fittest miners, astonished the world when he ran the New York marathon less than a month after the rescue. He is now an Elvis impersonator with one documentary portraying him as a drunk, with a failing marriage. Ariel Ticona, 30, whose wife gave birth to a baby girl, has also struggled.
Claudio Yanez, 34, got engaged in the mine when his girlfriend proposed to him in a note sent down the shaft. They are now married.
Yonni Barrios, 50, was dubbed "Dr House" after tending to his colleagues' medical needs while underground. On his rescue, he was offered $100,000 to be the face of an extramarital affairs website but only on condition that he stayed married to the wife who is now divorcing him. His wife learnt of his mistress when the two met at a vigil for him. Mr Barrios has since been reportedly diagnosed with silicosis of the lung.
After the rescue effort, only 26 per cent of Chile's population disapproved of President Sebastian Pinera's administration. His disapproval rating has now reached 60 per cent, according the latest polls.
The 33 miners have sold the rights to their story to Mike Medavoy, the Hollywood producer of films such Black Swan. The San Esteban Mining Company remains under bankruptcy protection and its assets have been sold off to help resolve debts and pay severance to the miners.
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