”The San José Mine [on the fringe of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile] spirals down nearly as deep as the tallest building on Earth is tall, and the drive along the Ramp from the surface to the deepest part of the mine is about five miles.
The Atacama Desert is one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world. There was once a river, the Copiapó, which ran through a city of the same name on the edge of the Atacama, but mining and population pressures have long since bled the river dry. Copiapó is where the men working in shifts of seven days on and seven days off sleep during their work week at the San José Mine. These facts alone would make a story about Copiapó fascinating, but since August 2010 we remember the province for a mining disaster that transfixed the world.
It is difficult to imagine the ordeal thirty-three men trapped deep in a Chilean mine with less than two days stored food and a few bottles of clean water must have experienced in their more than two months underground awaiting rescue. It is less difficult to imagine the despair and anxiety filling these men as they contemplated their situation.
By any common reckoning, the men should have died. At a different time or place, they might have, but by the extraordinary perseverance of the families of the miners and the efforts of an international team of mine rescuers, the men were resurrected to face life above ground once again. This is the story of their experience—how a disparate group of men working overtime to pay their bills and as a newly-formed team are trapped together in a collapsing mine by a sheared mega-block of the igneous rock diorite, precursor to granite, one-third the height and twice as heavy as the Empire State Building.
The story has a propulsion all its own. Our understanding of the ordinary stressors of a working day is amplified by the dark, hot, and humid conditions of the men's imprisonment. These men all know how mine collapses of this magnitude have been treated in the past, and must look past their expectations for weeks to hold out hope for a rescue. We saw the event unfold from the outside. Now, for the first time, we hear the inside story.
By some remarkable act of will and foresight, the men agree to share their story as a team. No member of the thirty-three will gain fortune by exploiting the story they all shared. How Héctor Tobar, U.S. citizen, correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and son of Guatemalan immigrants to the U.S., is chosen to tell the story is fascinating in itself and is shared in the New York Times Book Review Podcast.
The explosive noises, changes in air pressure, falling rock, dust and debris surrounding the men during the most severe thirty minutes of the collapse is terrifying enough. The moment the miners realize their path to the surface is blocked and the moment the rescuers discover the same news from their side of the megabloque is responded to with the exact same words: “Estamos cagados” [loose translation: “We’re fucked.”]
What happens after the men realize their predicament--how they react to one another, to their imaginations, to their hunger, pain, sorrow—is what makes this story such a remarkable document. The process of the rescue is interleaved with the telling of the internal lives of the trapped men. It is hard to put this book down, so convinced are we that we will learn something valuable about the strength and resilience of men under pressure.
The proceeds from the sale of the book (and there is talk of a movie starring Antonio Banderas as Mario Sepulveda, one of the miners with a big personality) will go to the miners themselves, which is incentive enough to buy the book, though we learn through our reading that money created more problems than they solved for these humble and stoic men. We wish them well, and god willing, a life worthy of their enormous challenge.
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