Even though I knew the ending before I opened this book, this in-depth, emotionally and factually rich story of 33 miners trapped under the earth for sixty-nine days was a real thriller.
The book opens with a photograph of the 33 men who survived two months deep underground. Thirty-two were from Chile, and there was one young miner from Bolivia who had the amazingly bad luck to be stuck in a mine collapse on his very first day of work.
In his fourth book, journalist Tobar presents not only the San Jose mine but an overview of modern Chilean life. He begins with a rich description of many of the miners and their families, some of whom travelled almost the whole length of Chile for their jobs.
Many of the miners described this particularly mine as similar to working in Hell, not only because of the tremendously lax safety regulations and lack of good leadership, but also because the mine itself--unlike many mines--was very hot. Even in “El Refugio” their cave break room, the temperature often reached 104 degrees with 98% humidity due to the geothermal heat emanating deep from the earth.
On the day of the collapse, Aug. 5, 2010, and for weeks before the mountain emitted loud cracking sounds. Many miners complained to management about this and were ignored or mocked.
Shortly before the collapse, one miner demanded that engineers come and check on a large crack. They came and pronounced the large ramp deep into the mine safe by placing giant mirrors against the cave’s walls that did not crack. However, one miner wondered if in fact the mirrors had broken but that management had replaced them so that they would look whole.
That Monday morning the cave’s noises were extremely loud; around noon dust poured out of deeper layers in great dark clouds. When someone complained to the general manager Pinilla, he told the worker, “The mountain is just settling.” He added, “Are you a coward?” Less than two hours later, the mine suffered a huge collapse, yet amazingly all the workers inside survived it.
Although the miners did not learn this for weeks, a huge slab or rock, taller than the Empire State Building had broken off and blocked all passage up the Ramp--the only way out. Supposedly, there should have been a series of ladders all the way to the top, but the owners cut costs drastically so there were only a few ladders and they did not connect.
Tobar explores the great physical and emotional stresses being buried alive causes even those used to working in this dark, dirty, and forbidding world. He’s expert about describing the relationships between the men and their families.
What is most poignant and interesting is how the men relate to each other. On day one of the collapse one supervisor pulls off his yellow helmet and says, we are all equals here. We all must make each decision together.
Later, starvation sets in and the men’s unity breaks apart. One miner takes up running even in his weakened state and despite the danger of falling rocks. Another pummels huge hunks of cave into underground water, screaming against his fate.
One with a warped sense of humor tells the one Bolivian to get up off his cot or risk being eater by the Chileans. Things turn dark.
The last section of the book describes the rescue. But even when a massive operation above succeeds in making a small opening for food and supplies, the men cannot eat right away. There’s a medical way to successfully navigate ease the body back into digestion that must be strictly followed.
The fierce love of the relatives propels the rescue movement, if it weren’t for these feisty stubborn relatives pressuring government officials, the miners would not have been saved.
For a book that will keep you reading long into the dark nights, try this real-life adventure.