One year on, rescued miners struggle with fame

Thirty three men survived a deadly cave-in at a Chilean mine. Trapped underground, the story of their survival inspired the world. But after their escape, their troubles had just begun.

One year on from the amazing rescue of 33 miners after a cave-in at Chile's San José copper mine, a new BBC documentary will show the effect of those days on the men's lives. Greeted as heroes when they emerged from the rescue capsule, many of them are now struggling to adapt to their changed lives.

Memories of the disaster are still fresh. Deep underground, a slab of stone the size of a skyscraper broke free of its subterranean moorings and smashed its way through the tunnels where the miners were excavating. No one was killed, but the mine's escape shafts were destroyed. The men were trapped and alone, with millions of tonnes of rock between them and freedom.

The upcoming documentary tells the story of the nightmarish period of 17 days in which the miners almost gave up all hope of rescue. It describes the amazing moment when the first rescue probe broke through to their underground refuge and they hammered desperately at the metal, signalling to the surface that they were still alive.

Most interestingly of all, it follows the miners' attempts to rebuild their lives after their escape. It had taken weeks to free them – weeks in which they were alone with their thoughts, and with the knowledge that a further cave-in could kill them at any moment. Some played cards. Others prayed. One man, a keen runner, jogged endless circuits through the abandoned tunnels, looking perhaps for some sort of meaning in his underground existence.

There were promises too, of the new lives they would lead if they were released: they would be better men, they swore to themselves; live virtuously; treat each day as if it could be their last.

But when the rescue tunnel was dug, and they emerged into daylight at last, they found themselves the centre of a media frenzy.

The 33 accidental celebrities soon found their promises difficult to keep. One man had promised to marry his partner – he quickly got cold feet. Others turned to drink, spending the cash from their media appearances in an effort to mask the trauma of their ordeal. They were changed men, but not all for the better.

Buried truth

What does that tell us about our modern world, which so quickly destroyed the miners' good intentions? In ancient times, hermits would hide in remote wildernesses in an attempt to discover eternal truths and spiritual enlightenment. Is that what happened here? Perhaps the 33 discovered something important in their isolation, which being rescued made them forget.

But is there really such a thing as an 'eternal truth' which can be discovered deep underground, far from society? There is another view: that wisdom doesn't come from isolation but from immersion in the banal but important realities of everyday life.

You Decide

  1. Would there be anything good about going through what the miners experienced – or is it all bad news?
  2. How important is solitude in life?

Activities

  1. Write and perform a ten-minute play, based on the miners' story.
  2. Read the article about the documentary in Become an Expert. Who were the real victims of the San José mine disaster – the miners or their wives and girlfriends? Why?

Some People Say...

“I'd like to be stuck down a mine – just to get away from all the stress.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How long were the miners trapped?
They were underground for 69 days – a record. It took so long because rescuers had to drill a special shaft down to the tunnels that was wide enough for the miners to pass through.
And what happened when they escaped?
They were greeted with national celebration and were met by their relieved loved ones. In fact, one miner was embarrassed when both his wifeand his mistress showed up at the mine to greet him.
What are they doing now?
Most are still poor, and traumatised by their ordeal. Some make a living from speeches. One is now an Elvis Presley impersonator.

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