The story of The 33 miners

It was the story that transfixed the world: 33 miners, trapped hundreds of metres below the ground for 69 days, are delivered from death after an unparalleled international rescue effort in the full glare of the world’s media. But what actually went on beneath the Atacama Desert?

In The 33, Stephen Franklin, an American journalist based in Chile, offers a gripping account both of the stupidity that saw the men sent into a mine on the verge of collapse, and the ingenuity that led to their salvation.

The story is told in two halves – miracle, then parable. In the first, a devastating cave-in entombs the 32 Chileans (and one Bolivian) beneath 700,000 tons of rock.

Official estimates put the chances of there being any survivors at less than 2 per cent; in desperation, Chile’s mining minister resorts to consulting a psychic.

Within the mine, the food is carefully, painfully rationed: tiny servings of tuna broth and stagnant milk doled out every half-day, then every day, then every two days, then every three.

Somehow, the miners forge a sense of togetherness, maintaining their rudimentary democracy despite the appalling pressures.

Yet as fatigue, hunger and disease set in, that energy dwindles. And then, the miraculous moment: a rescue drill that had been sliding wide of its target corrects its own course, breaking into empty space.

There is a hammering from below, and when the drill is retracted, via a hole not 10cm across, it bears a message: we are all here, and we are all alive.

This is an astonishingly powerful moment, and Franklin marshals the narrative masterfully.

But now the theme shifts from Lord of the Flies to Paradise Lost, as the tension between the miners and the surface authorities, the media attention, and the proximity of salvation exert a corrosive effect.

Soon, men who once prayed for water are impatiently sending up their MP3 players to have the playlists reformatted.

Mario Sepulveda, whose inspiration and energy were vital in keeping his fellows motivated, is voted out of his leadership position for being a hyperactive attention-seeker:

“It was an open secret,” says Franklin, “that they wanted to beat the shit out of him.”

Through a combination of censorship and expert image-making, the Chilean government – under the hands-on leadership of President Sebastián Piñera – kept such tensions carefully hidden.

Even the final sting in the tail, when the completion of the rescue shaft caused the mountain to shift and stir, and the repeated elevation of the “Phoenix” capsule turned into a deadly race against time, is kept from the public.

One senses, for better or for worse, some of the same restraint in Franklin’s account. His grasp of events, and of the sheer technical challenge, is exemplary.

Yet he largely maintains the miners’ “pact of silence”, downplaying not just the goings-on on the surface – the squabbles between wives and mistresses, the sudden revelation of love children – but the tensions between those below.

There are delicate mentions of the “transitory homosexuality” to which such miners are prone, and to drugs being smuggled down the supply tube, but the sauciest anecdote concerns a plan to send down blow-up dolls, which is abandoned when one doctor argues that having to share “companions” would cause more problems than it would solve.

Franklin’s wider thesis is that this crisis represented “a rare moment of global unity focused on joy, hope and solidarity” – an “anti-9/11” that demonstrates the innate goodness of the human animal. It is hard not to find this claim overblown, though not as overblown as some of the prose: “No one was sure,” he writes of one cave-in, “if this was a brief sob or if the whole mountain would start to wail and bombard them with its deadly tears.”

Yet despite such flaws, the wealth of detail and drama in The 33 makes for utterly compelling reading. Indeed, the story is powerful precisely because its heroes are not paragons. As rescue approaches, for example, several miners volunteer to be the last to depart.

They are hailed for their nobility – until it is realised that they are each hoping to claim the world record for the longest time spent underground. It is a moment that, like the miners themselves, is wonderfully human.

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