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Tuesday 20 February 2018

Fame and notoriety await 'Los 33' miners

Breakthrough after 65 days, but some will emerge to family tension

Philip Sherwell at the San Jose mine

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 disaster strikes, the ordeal of "Los 33" -- the 33 miners entombed nearly half a mile beneath the moon-like 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 yesterday, 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 peaches.

That "miracle at the mine" was remarkable enough. But for the last seven weeks they have lived an unprecedented existence, kept alive 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 the US medical drama.

Several years ago, he completed a short medical course to care for his sick grandmother. And so, via video-conference and written instructions from medics, he has taken blood samples, administered drugs and treated his fellow miners. But even as the 50-year-old was centre-stage 2,300ft 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 catfight in a canteen, 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.

The men have continued to mark the regular cycle of events and dramas that define human life.

The men marked Chile's 200 years of independence with a feast of steak and meat pies; Mario Sepulveda celebrated his 40th birthday with his colleagues with 33 pieces of cake sent down by his wife; and cheers echoed through the mine when Ariel Ticona became a father for the first time. Claudio Yanez accepted a marriage proposal from Cristina Nunez, his partner of the last 10 years, who had previously turned down his own proposal. "I said no then because I wanted us to be older and better prepared," she said. "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. "We use the latest electronics to measure the depth of the tunnels but they already knew the results before we tell them," said Alberto Iturra, 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, a heart monitoring device, a harness and a communication system. The device will take about 12-15 minutes to complete the ascent at the rate of about three feet a second.

After the August 5 rockfall, the men had initially crammed into a hot and humid shelter of just 500 sq ft as they waited and prayed to be found.

But since the test drill made contact with them on August 22, they have spread out into the sprawling network of chambers and tunnels that corkscrew into the earth below.

Los 33 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 for washing, and another chamber houses lavatories using natural springs that were already in place for the 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 equipment as well as the daily 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 in a Thermos; there is fresh fruit for a mid-morning snack; lunch is turkey, vegetables and mashed potato, heated to 80C at the surface and vacuum-packed for the 12-minute descent; a sandwich arrives in the afternoon; and then there is dinner of pasta in meat sauce followed by fruit salad.

They are drinking six pints of water and three pints of isotonic energy drinks a day to keep hydrated, though doctors vetoed their requests for beer and wine -- even for special occasions such as the Chilean bicentenary.

Smokers have been sent 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.

Jean Romagnoli, an extreme sports medic who has worked with military and mountain expeditions, has drawn up workout routines for each man, whose ages range from 19 to 63 and whose fitness levels vary just as dramatically.

The men watch live televised news conferences on screens erected in a viewing chamber.

Dr Iturra's team always briefs them first so that they do not learn about their fate from the media.

But they prefer entertainment to news programmes. They have watched Troy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Mask. Action films and comedies are popular, as well as dramas such as the CSI series and House.

The fortitude and unity of the men has clearly played a key role in their survival. But there have been occasional moments of discord.

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 record.

In preparation for the frenzy that awaits, the men received media training via video from Mr Pino, a former journalist.

Subjects have included how to handle questions about sensitive issues such as money, and, of course, the squabbling families.

And the tensions at the surface spilt below ground on more than one occasion.

For a start, the miners had to choose the three relations who will meet them when they finally emerge -- quite a challenge for men with large and sometimes duelling families.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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