Friday 20 April 2018

Review: The 33: The Ultimate Account of The Chilean Miners' Dramatic Rescue by Jonathan Franklin

Bantam, €14.99, Paperback

There were many obstacles to be overcome in the bid to rescue 33 miners trapped 700 metres below ground in the San Jose mine in the remote Atacama desert in Chile, but surely none more delicate than the question of the sex dolls.

It was day 44 of the rescue attempt. Contact had been made with the miners in their swimming pool-sized safety shelter. Water and food was being passed through an ingenious flexible tube the miners called 'La Paloma'.

As their spirits revived, so too did their appetites. In the early days after the mine collapsed on August 5, 2010, the men survived on a spoonful of tuna and a gulp of milk every 36 hours. "We were too tired to think of sex," said one.

Contact was made on day 17. Sustenance, in the form a small doses of glucose, was introduced slowly; a full meal would have proved fatal to men in such a weakened condition.

Gradually, their strength increased. "I'm sure they put something in our food, something that kept us from thinking about sex," said Alex Vega, one of the 33. But the psychologists on the surface were thinking about it.

Miners often engaged in what one psychiatrist called "Brokeback Mountain syndrome", or "transitory homosexuality" during their long stints underground. Now, the rescue team worried that rising sexual tension might harm the group dynamics.

At Camp Hope, the makeshift town of tents and caravans that had sprung up around the rescue site, all sorts of people were constantly arriving with strange inventions or fantastical ideas to help save "Los 33".

Most were sent packing, but some -- such as the inventor of the 'Paloma' delivery tube and the persistent designer of a fibre-optic telecoms system that was finally accepted as the main means of talking to the miners -- were entertained.

The latest arrival offered 10 blow-up sex dolls as a "treat" for the miners. "I said 33 or none," said the group's medical adviser. "Otherwise they would be fighting for inflatable dolls: whose turn is it? Who was seen with whose finacée? You are flirting with my inflatable doll!"

The miners were keen. They asked for a sample set of five (and some condoms) to be sent down, and had agreed a place in the mine where they could go for some private time. But when the men's families discovered the plan, they objected. In the end, some pin-ups from a Chilean newspaper were sent down instead.

Jonathan Franklin's gripping account of the rescue of the Chilean miners is full of such details, showing the 33 men as heroes, but also vulnerably human. His research is impressive, and he had enviable access to all the main players in the drama that kept the world riveted for 69 days.

His story falls naturally into two parts. The first deals with the collapse of the mine -- it was notoriously unsafe, a mountain riddled "like Swiss cheese" by four miles of tunnels -- and the first 17 days of the miners' entombment.

It those early days, the men's solidarity was near total as they fell in behind their two leaders, taciturn shift foreman Luis Uszua and the high-energy "mister motivator" Mario Sepulveda. They set up routines and organised tasks to keep them from going mad in the depths of the mountain.

The second part concerns the lengthy period between contact and rescue, when the group began to fall apart. The influence of the outside world affected them -- much as the arrival of the first Europeans affected their tribal ancestors.

Their families smuggled drugs down to them, they spent days listlessly watching television and became fractious and aggressive. Before, they had a routine of checking their sleeping colleagues to make sure they were still breathing and had not succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Now, they preferred to watch TV.

As they saw coverage of their plight on news bulletins, they began to get jealous of those who got more media exposure. Small cliques formed and much of their initial unity was lost.

Not all, however. They were united in their hatred of psychologist Dr Alberto Iturra, who was appointed by the miners' health insurer to look after their mental wellbeing while they waited for rescue.

Iturra followed a strict carrot-and-stick approach to the men: if they carried out tasks, they got goodies through the 'Paloma' tube; if they didn't, their TV and treats were restricted.

The men began to object, and when they saw a TV interview in which their tormentor suggested he was like a father to the miners, they rebelled.

"Like good miners, we went on strike," said one. They refused to accept food from 'La Paloma' until Iturra was removed. Eventually, he went on sabbatical and never returned.

By now the men were getting more unruly. All 33 sent their peach desserts back up the tube one day because one of them didn't like the way they tasted. Their demands were becoming more difficult to meet, especially through a 90mm plastic tube.

The Chilean authorities decided it was time to call in the experts.

NASA, which has been studying how humans behave in confined spaces since the 1950s, said the miners' habit of voting on everything had to be discouraged; instead, a strong leader should be selected and supported from above. (In the end, Urzua and Sepulveda were sort of co-leaders, with Urzua, as shift foreman, deferred to ultimately.)

Despite the occasional disharmony in the mine, it was nothing to the chaos above ground, where wives and girlfriends squabbled, TV crews fought for camera positions and journalists regularly crashed their cars on the winding road to Camp Hope.

Nor is the story of the San Jose mine a simple one of heroes rescued by other heroes. The narrative was "streamlined" by the government (letters to and from the miners were censored and TV images edited) to make it more accessible, and more favourable to Chile.

But through all the dust, sweat, rubble and media manipulation, many heroes do emerge: the miners, of course, especially Urzua and Sepulveda, but also Andre Sougarret, the engineer in charge of the rescue, and Chilean president Sebastian Pinera.

Pinera, who had recently been elected to power, had already dealt with a tsunami that devastated the country's coastline. He was the first centre-right leader for over 30 years, and he staked his government's reputation on the success of the rescue.

He called in favours from around the world, and, as other leaders responded with technical aid, insisted that three different rescue strategies be pursued simultaneously. At crucial stages, he consistently made the right calls.

As the miners prepared to leave the mine, some selflessly offered to let others be rescued ahead of them. It was portrayed as a last heroic gesture of gallant men.

Later it transpired that each wanted to be able to sell his story as the man who was last out of the mine.

The story of the miners, so well told by Franklin in this definitive account, remains suitably and wonderfully human to the end.

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