Trapped Chile miners will emerge to fame, movie contracts - and angry wives
Published 11/10/2010 | 09:50
As freedom finally beckons for the trapped miners of San Jose, some may find their homecoming party a more complicated affair than they would like.
Some will emerge to fame and fortune. Others just want to fade rapidly back to obscurity. And a few have some serious explaining to do.
Unless an unthinkable disaster strikes, the ordeal of "Los 33" - the 33 miners entombed nearly half a mile beneath the moonlike wilderness of the Atacama desert in northern Chile - will end this week.
A drill carving a rescue shaft broke through the rock into their subterranean dungeon early on Saturday, 65 days after they were trapped by a huge rockfall.
They were feared dead for the first 17 days until a borehole reached the shelter where they had eked out two days' emergency supply of tuna and peach.
That "miracle at the mine" was remarkable enough. But for the last seven weeks, they have lived an unprecedented underground existence, kept alive and well via the two small "umbilical cords" that are their only connection with the world above.
The extraordinary tale of survival in one of the most inhospitable spots on the planet has captured the attention of the world. But for some of the miners, that glare of publicity has also thrown an unwelcome spotlight on messy private lives.
Several men have been revealed to have children by different women, and competing claims for their affections. And amid talk of lucrative compensation claims, film and book deals and media buy-ups, love and money are destined for an awkward clash.
For Yonni Barrios, the conflict is perhaps most striking. Beneath ground, he has played one of the starring roles in the remarkable story as "Dr House", as his fellow miners call him in honour of their favourite US television medical show.
Several years ago, he completed a short medical training course to care for his ill grandmother. And so, via videoconference and written instructions from medics at the surface, he has taken blood samples and administered drugs and creams for high blood pressure, diabetes, fibrosis, skin infections and mouth sores.
But even as the 50-year-old was centre-stage 2,300 feet underground, his tangled domestic arrangements provided an extra spectacle above ground.
For his wife and a woman who claimed to be the lover he has promised to marry only discovered that each other existed when both turned up at the vigil site with pictures of the trapped man.
Since dramatically coming to blows in a cat-fight in a canteen at the site, both women have disappeared from public view. But Mr Barrios is clearly going to have to placate at least one of them when he rejoins the world this week.
Indeed, while they may have been physically cut off from the world, the men have nonetheless marked the regular cycle of events and dramas that define human life, as Yesica Cortez, the wife of one of the trapped miners, explained last week.
As she spoke, she twirled in her fingers a gold necklace bearing her first name - a present from the depths of the earth. For via the supply boreholes, her husband Victor Zamora arranged the surprise gift to celebrate the couple's recent wedding anniversary.
"He wrote a letter to a friend asking him to buy me a bouquet of roses and this necklace," she said as she sat at a table in Camp Hope, the tent community established by relatives and now also home to a media city in a barren rocky bowl near the minehead. "The only better anniversary present would have been if he'd been freed that day."
Ms Cortez is four months pregnant with their second child. But she has insisted on living with their son Arturo at the camp, a makeshift community that sprung up amid towering sand dunes and rocky crags in the driest place on the planet.
Under a canvas throw-to, there is a portable gas stove for cooking, a metal tub for washing and a small tent for sleeping, Chilean flags flutter in the breeze outside and a makeshift shrine of Roman Catholic icons, bibles, pictures and candles balanced on top on an oil drum holds pride of place.
It is devoid of human comforts. But with the matter-of-factness of a miner's wife, she observed: "Victor's life is much more uncomfortable than ours has ever been up here. To stay here is the least I could do."
Their anniversary is not the only landmark moment to have been celebrated above and below ground. The miners marked Chile's 200 years of independence with a specially-prepared feast of steak and meat pies; Mario Sepulveda just celebrated his 40th birthday with his colleagues with 33 pieces of cake dispatched down the borehole by his wife; and cheers echoed through the mine when Ariel Ticona learned he had become a father for the first time.
And Claudio Yanez accepted a marriage proposal from Cristina Nunez, his partner of the last 10 years, who had previously turned down his own suggestion they marry. "I said no then because I wanted us to be older and better prepared," she told The Sunday Telegraph. "Well, now I think we're prepared."
The 32 Chileans and one Bolivian have followed the progress of the rescue mission with their ears and their hands. Attuned to the sound of noise through rock, they have tracked its progress by the roar and reverberation of the drills working through the rock above them. And each day, they use the machinery trapped with them to clear the mounds of earth dislodged by the tunnels.
"We use the latest electronics to measure the depth of the tunnels but they already knew the results before we tell them," said Alberto Iturro, the psychiatrist who heads the team of therapists who talk to the men every day.
The men will be pulled to safety one-by-one in a specially designed caged capsule equipped with oxygen, heart monitoring device, harness and a communication system. The device will take about 12-15 minutes to complete the ascent at the speed of about three feet a second.
And Miss Yanez knows exactly how it will feel for her new fiancé to step into the capsule as she volunteered to try the first one out for size when it arrived at the mine. "It felt very safe, very secure, very comfortable," she said.
After the Aug 5 rockfall, the men had initially crammed into a hot and humid shelter of just 500 square feet as they waited and prayed to be found. But since the test drill made contact with the on Aug 22, they have spread out into the sprawling network of chambers and tunnels that cork-screw down into the earth below.
"Los 33", as they are universally known, have split themselves into three groups of 11, operating on morning, afternoon and night shifts that mimic as best as possible a miner's life. Each group sleeps works and relaxes separately but they regularly gather for shared meals, video conferences with the rescue team, communal meetings and prayer sessions.
Water is piped down heated for showers and washing in the bathroom area, another chamber houses toilets using natural springs that were already in place for working miners.
A key task for each shift is the round-the-clock operation of the palomas (literally doves), the thin 12-foot long mining industry supply capsules that are threaded up and down the boreholes day and night, carrying items from the most mundane to the most inventive, as well as the daily flow of letters between the miners, family and friends.
The palomas also deliver the men's daily meals - a diet of about 2,200 calories, supplemented with vitamin pills. On a typical day, breakfast is bread, butter, jam, ham and cheese, with hot coffee and tea delivered in a thermos; there is fresh fruit for a mid-morning snack; lunch is turkey breast, vegetables and mashed potato, heated to 80C at the surface and then immediately vacuum packed for the 12-minute descent; a sandwich arrives for an afternoon snack; and then there is dinner of pasta in meat sauce followed by fruit salad for dessert.
They are drinking three litres of water and 1.5 litres of isotonic energy drinks a day to keep hydrated, though doctors vetoed the men's requests for beer and wine - even for special occasions such as the Chilean bicentenary. Smokers have been sent low-tar cigarettes, but they must walk 500 yards from camp - as the living quarters are known - to a designated smoking area.
They also exercise each day, not least to ensure that even the portlier men will fit into the rescue capsule - a goal that has been achieved. Jean Romagnoli, an extreme sports medic who has worked with military and mountain expeditions, has drawn up an individual work-out routines for each man, whose ages range from 19 to 63 and whose fitness levels vary just as dramatically.
Wearing chest belts with electronic meters that send information about their heart rates and metabolism straight to the surface, they jog up the ramps, skip with ropes and use gym rubber bands for muscle work-outs.
Military camp beds were disassembled and dispatched through the piping, as was more hi-tech equipment such as film projectors, telephones and video connections. The men watch televised news conferences live on screens erected in a viewing chamber so Mr Iturra's team always makes sure they are briefed first on developments so that they do learn about their fate from the media.
But they prefer entertainment to news programmes. They have watched "Troy", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with Brad Pitt and Jim Carrey's "The Mask". Action films and comedies are popular, as well as dramas such as the CSI series and House (the source of Yonni Barrios' nickname).
"In this very abnormal situation, the goal is to make life as normal as possible," said Alejandro Pino, the regional director of the Chilean business safety association who has overseen the operation to keep the men fed and supplied. "The idea is to make it feel they are working a very long shift not that they're trapped."
The fortitude and unity of the men has clearly played a key role in their survival. But There have been occasional moments of discord. Indeed, there was even an argument about who would be the last miner rescued - not because of a noble insistence that others should make it to safety first but out of the desire to hold the record for the longest period spent underground. That friction has apparently been settled by an agreement that all 33 will be recognised as joint holders of the unusual distinction.
Some of the men also said they wanted a lawyer to draw up an agreement to trademark the commercial rights for the phrase "Los 33" while other wanted a mutual pact of silence to be drawn up.
The rescue team vetoed any such commercial or legal activity while the men were still trapped, but the requests foreshadow the commercial scramble that will accompany their new-found celebrity status.
Indeed, in preparation for the frenzy that awaits, the miners have received media training classes by videoconference from Mr Pino, a former journalist. Subjects have included how to handle questions about sensitive issues such as money matters, sexual thoughts while underground and of course the squabbling families.
"These men have never dealt with the press, before so we want to them to be able to handle this in a calm and relaxed way," he said. "I have been trying to show them that journalists are not their enemy."
And the tensions at the surface spilled below ground at times. For a start, the miners had to choose the three relatives will meet them when they finally emerge - quite a challenge for men with large and sometimes duelling families.
"The fighting within the families and the domestic squabbles has actually been our greatest headache," Commander Andreas Llarena, a Chilean navy doctor leading the medical operations, told The Sunday Telegraph.
"But medically they are doing great. There has been some anxiety as D-Day approaches, but there have been no accidents, no medical emergencies and the skin sores they developed have got much better. It's just those domestic issues that have been a problem."