Were you among those people around the globe who followed the story of the Chilean mining disaster of 2010? I clearly recall the drama that unfolded daily on the news and in other media from August until October that year. It felt as though the whole world watched and waited to see if thirty-three men trapped thousands of feet under a collapsed mine near Copiapo, Chile, would be found at all, much less found alive. Deep Down Dark by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Hector Tobar, tells “the rest of the story” of these men, their harrowing underground experience and their rescue.
It is interesting to note, I think, that Deep Down Dark is considered the official rendering of the story of the San Jose Mine collapse. After contact with the outside world was established and the men knew they would be rescued from the mine, they also learned that they had become a worldwide media sensation. Soon after this, the miners came to an understanding among themselves that they would, as a group, select one writer to tell their story rather than have multiple individual stories published. The thirty-three agreed that because they had endured the mine accident together, and survived it together, each one contributing his unique strength toward their survival, there should be one book about their group’s experience, written by one person only. Hector Tobar, son of Guatemalan immigrants and born in Los Angeles, was the man they chose for the assignment. According to a transcript of an interview he did with NPR in January of this year, Tobar said that he was selected because he was a journalist, novelist, spoke Spanish, and knew South America. Tobar was indeed an excellent choice on the miners’ part – his skill as a journalist and story teller are on full display in Deep Down Dark.
It must have been a Herculean task for Tobar to gather the information and then recount the lives and actions of so many individuals — not just the thirty-three miners, but also their families, other mine workers, mine owners, politicians, celebrities, and all those involved in the rescue of the men. Tobar skillfully transforms the names and job descriptions of the thirty-three men into vivid depictions of the incredible difficulties of a miner’s profession. He reveals their personalities, and acquaints us with their families and liaisons, life histories and work relationships.
As the story opens, Tobar gives a detailed account of the mountainous, desert landscape around Copiapo. He also describes the condition and age of the San Jose Mine, the neglect that it has suffered from the owners, and the many signs that indicated the once-relatively-stable structure was starting to shift perilously. On August 5th, 2010, the 121-year-old mine began to give way. In the following paragraph, Tobar writes about the earthquake-like activity that occurs during the cave-in of the mine on the day of the accident:
“The solid rock of the mountain is transformed into a breathing, pulsating mass. The ceiling and floor of the Ramp become undulating waves of stone, and the mountain hurls boulders that emerge from the blackness of the tunnel and roll and bounce downhill, each a lethal weapon…” After the mine collapse in which the Ramp, the main road in and out of the mine, is completely blocked by a single, guillotine-like piece of rock that is 550 feet high and weighs twice as much as the Empire State Building, the mine becomes a symbol of the men’s destruction. “The flat stone is a vision of death, and it causes them to reflect, as they stand before it, on the world they’ve been separated from: the realm of the living, of families and fog-laden breezes, of homes and paternal obligations.”
In the process of writing Deep Down Dark, Tobar made seven trips to Chile over the course of three years. He spoke to every single miner, some of them several times. Often, the recollections of the time the miners spent confined in the mine are filled with anxiety and dread. Tobar presents the crises that each man faced during his underground confinement – the lack of food, the oppressive heat, the oil tinged water they drank, and the fear and despondency each one confronted. The most excruciating question for all of them was, “Will the people above ground bother to try to rescue us, or will they abandon the mine because they believe we are dead?” The mental stress the trapped miners endured was as debilitating as the lack of food and fresh air. Adjusting to their situation was agonizingly difficult. Initially, leadership was needed, the days lacked meaningful routines, and relationships were rocky. In time, it was understood that if they hoped to get out of the mine alive, things had to change. The miracle that no one was killed in the mine collapse was not lost on the men. Most were Roman Catholic, and faith was a big factor in the society that was eventually established in the mine. They agreed that faith was going to be needed for a rescue to take place, and all the men prayed together almost daily, confessing sins, forgiving each other, and asking God to take care of their families, as well as praying to be rescued. Any religious differences were set aside.
Above ground, every man’s family was enduring their own trials of fear, helplessness, and hopelessness. A tent camp was constructed close to the San Jose Mine as families traveled from their homes to begin the vigil of waiting for news of their loved ones. They all struggled with the same appalling questions — are they dead or alive? If they are alive, can they be rescued?
Throughout Deep Down Dark, the author switches from below-ground to above-ground occurrences, keeping pace with the successes and setbacks in both settings. Tobar delivers an honest portrayal of the people involved in the disaster, acknowledging that each one had occasions when they would rise to the challenge of the moment, and times when they failed miserably. Because of the intense scrutiny that the media used in investigating the lives of all the trapped miners, it was well known that one of the men had a wife and mistress at the tent camp waiting for news of his welfare. I wondered if Tobar would exploit this story in his book. He did include the story, but he was candid in his portrayal of the troubled marriage and the long term extra-marital relationship, acknowledging the situation and the hardship it caused for everyone involved. He did not make either heroes or villains out of the people concerned, but rather portrayed them all sympathetically.
The word miracle is used in the subtitle of Deep Down Dark. Certainly that all of the trapped men in the mine survived the accident and were brought out alive is miraculous. But there were many other aspects to the mine event, both big and small, that the miners saw as spiritually significant, and beyond the scope and power of everyday human experience — miracles, in other words. Tobar was able to probe deeply into the miners’ fears, hopes, strengths, and weaknesses, which shows, I believe, that those with whom he spoke trusted him to tell their stories with honesty and dignity, and with respect for their miracles. Tobar does all that with great skill and restraint in Deep Down Dark, which is a kind of miracle in itself.
This book is excellent reading, and would also be a great choice for a book club. The topic of mining, its hazards and benefits, ideas about what constitutes good leadership, the role of faith in times of disaster — all of these subjects would open up avenues for discussion.