One Year Later

10.09.11

Chilean Miners Fight Their Demons

Their miraculous rescue captivated the world, but many of the 33 men who were trapped underground for more than two months are still suffering in darkness. Jonathan Franklin on their psychological fate.

A year after their miraculous rescue, Samuel Avalos, one of the 33 rescued Chilean miners, now says that the fabled heroes have been abandoned, both financially and psychologically. “Every man for himself,” said Avalos, when asked to describe the psychological counseling and financial support given him over the past 12 months. “They cast us to the wind and experimented with pills, giving us everything including anti-psychotics!”

Avalos, a 42-year-old with minimal mining experience before the entrapment, is now living off the occasional lecture and has peddled his personal artifacts from the entrapment for $8,000 to a Chilean museum run by Carlos Cardoen, a millionaire businessman who made his fortune selling cluster bombs to Saddam Hussein.

“They bought my helmet, my uniform, and lots of knickknacks,” said Avalos, who hopes to work as a tour guide at that same museum, in Santa Cruz in central Chile.

In a permutation of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which kidnap victims bond with their captors, the miners have developed a pathological attachment to their master—the San Jose mine itself, said Rodrigo Gillibrand, a psychiatrist in Santiago who is treating many of the miners for post-traumatic stress symptoms. “There will be no return to normalcy,” said Gillibrand. “In this case it´s impossible; the road is studded with trauma.”

Psychological problems among the miners have spread deeply in recent months, forcing the government to seek the institutionalization of at least three of them, including Edison Peña, the Elvis imitator who charmed the world with his performance on the David Letterman show.

While trapped underground for 10 weeks, the 33 men experienced conditions that were practically the definition of torture: darkness, no sense of time, deprivation of food, a sense of imminent death, and most important, a complete uncertainty about when the entire incident might end.

“Experiments with mammals have shown that it is that uncertainty that is so traumatic,” said Gillibrand. “It is a lot like the symptoms seen in Vietnam veterans, you have permanent rage, and nightmares ... Many of these men will need treatment for life. It is impossible to erase this trauma.”

He estimated that roughly one third of the men were experiencing extremely complicated symptoms as a result of their entrapment. “Put it this way, if you asked me how many of the men don´t need psychiatric help, I would say seven or eight.”

Gillibrand, who has been involved with the mental-health protocols of the miners for more than a year, was critical of what he called the Chilean society´s “abandonment” of the miners. “With the rescue they were freed, not cured,” he said.

Under Chilean law, the health-insurance company ACHS, where Gillibrand works, is responsible only for the health and welfare of the injured workers—the 33 miners in this case. However, Gillibrand said it was clear that the families of the miners are also in grave need of treatment and counseling. “There were great expectations that when the men were rescued they would be reborn, many committed to marriage … but this trauma is impossible to erase. Many of them left a grand part of their personalities down below.”

Those pleas are falling on largely deaf ears. Despite continued worldwide interest in the entrapment and the rescue of the miners, the coordination of their worldwide fame has been haphazard at best. A top Chilean law firm, Carey & Carey, has negotiated an exclusive deal with the William Morris/Endeavor talent agency to coordinate the big-ticket items, including the official book, official movie, and reportedly a TV miniseries. But the miners have not seen that money yet, and many of them are living on the brink of poverty—selling fruit at a corner market, auctioning off their new motorcycles (a gift from Kawasaki), and pleading with the government for state-subsidized housing.

While a handful of the miners—including Omar Reygadas, charismatic Mario Sepulveda, and shift foreman Luis Urzúa—have been actively courted as speakers and celebrities, the once fabled unity of the 33 is now being torn apart by money matters. An email account set up to channel interview requests and sponsorship opportunities has allegedly been hijacked by a single miner. “That is why we overthrew him,” said Samuel Avalos, referring to Reygadas, who was for several months the point person and spokesman for the group. “He never shared the password, and he is the only one with the access. He keeps all the information for himself."

Gillibrand was also critical of the psychological treatment given the men when they were trapped underground. “It wasn't adequate. It should have been less confrontational, should have been focused on minimizing their stress.”

Alberto Iturra, the lead psychologist during the 10-week entrapment, had devised a plan—now widely criticized—in which he deliberately provoked the trapped miners in an effort to stimulate group unity. By restricting TV access and censoring letters, Iturra sought to first increase the collective rage of the trapped men and then have it channeled topside. That approach has been widely questioned in the aftermath of the rescue, with the rather common-sense logic that extremely stressed individuals do not need additional burdens.

“With the rescue they were freed, not cured.”

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, who was at the forefront of the media-spectacle rescue and could conceivably invent jobs for the 33, told the TV show 60 Minutes that it was time for the miners to get back to work. He essentially said that life is tough and you have to bear it out. Piñera´s political fortunes soared with the miners, reaching an approval-rating high of 65 percent, while today he is in freefall, with recent polls showing just 27 percent approve of his performance. The miners have subsequently fallen far off the Chilean political radar. “The paternalism of the government is like that of a father who recognizes he is the father of a child and then abandons him again,” said Gillibrand. “It is so frustrating that they don't have work or at least a solution for employment. I am not saying they should be fully subsidized, but at least a steady job.”

For the miners suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the road back to working and normal health is still a far-off dream. When miner José Ojeda went back to working underground, he had an almost immediate blackout, an overwhelming sense of anguish and panic. To this day, Ojeda does not know how he walked or was taken out of the mine.

Many of the miners complain of nightmares, fear of loud sounds, short attention spans, and difficulty relating to their immediate family. “I used to play with my 4-year-old. Now the relationship is not the same,” said miner Victor Zamora. He later joked that he wished he could be a millionaire because “that way I could find the guy who has my happiness and buy it back.”

Zamora has returned to therapy in what may be a years' long effort to find balance and stability in his life. For other miners, the trauma has been so thick with violence and nightmares that the men have abandoned psychological counseling and come under care only when the medical authorities have managed to briefly institutionalize them.

Even before the mine collapsed on Aug. 5, 2010, the miners were victims. Their workplace, Mina San José, was so notoriously dangerous that the men gave themselves the nickname the Kamikazes.

Wages at San José were some 30 percent higher than average, meaning that a working man with a sixth-grade education could earn $1,700 a month, a small fortune in northern Chile, where the majority earn the minimum wage of $350 a month.

Every shift inside the San José Mine was potentially deadly—the roof crashing down, tunnels collapsing, exhaust fumes sending clouds of faint-inducing toxins. The safety procedures were virtually nonexistent. Just four weeks before the massive collapse of the mine, a mini-avalanche sliced off the left leg of worker Gino Cortes. The death of co-workers had led the Chilean government to occasionally suspend mining operations, but the regulators always gave in to the economics of a mine that produced 250 jobs. After every death, the mine was briefly put under the spotlight. But with just two government mine inspectors for a region with more than 2,000 operating mines, the oversight and inspection capabilities remained light years behind the billion-dollar development of the mining industry in the northern part of the country.

An investigation by the Chilean congress heard repeated testimony that the mine owners had greedily chased veins of valuable gold and copper and effectively honeycombed the entire mountainside, leading to the cave-in.

When the mine collapsed, a piece of rock twice the weight of the Empire State Building slammed down, effectively sealing the men in an underground tomb. At a depth of nearly 700 meters, the men were destined to die a hot, slow death. Humidity was 90 percent, and the temperature rarely broke below 90 degrees—meaning the men were drenched in sweat and forced to rehydrate by drinking from tubs of industrial water.

During the first 17 days of entrapment, with no contact to the outside world, the men built a unique underground society. The constant threat of death, the almost total lack of food, and the sense that they were collectively going to die together brought the men to the brink of a very slow and gruesome death spiral.

Cannibalism was not only a possibility but a near certainty. “The men were looking at one another wondering who would die first. It was an open secret that the first victim would also be the first meal,” said one of the rescue workers who asked not to be named out of fear that he would lose his job. With a stream of constant jokes and threats, the miners made it clear that eating a companion was not just an option, it was the only option.

While trapped underground, the men also began to consider an act of desperation: collective suicide. The methods discussed included blowing themselves to smithereens with dynamite and packing the group into tight quarters and running exhaust fumes into the enclosed area. Once the rescue began to show signs of success, the men tried to bury these dark memories, but the fallout from these grueling moments continues to haunt them.

Despite their abandonment, lack of financial future, and deep psychological scars from the entrapment, the men have somehow maintained a sense of loyalty that keeps alive the spirit of the “33 Musketeers.”

If they can hold that unity long enough, they may well live to see the promises of fortune that have been tempting them since the moment they were rescued in October 2010. A major movie deal is in the works. With Hollywood heavyweight Michael Medavoy (Black Swan, Shutter Island) and scriptwriter José Rivera (Motorcycle Diaries) and a worldwide audience guaranteed to pay attention, the launch of a worldwide release in 2013 might well bring the men the real cash of their dreams. An official book written by Pulitzer Prize–winning Hector Tobar (Los Angeles Times) is also expected to give the men a burst of publicity and perhaps some cash as well.

During a recent interview with miner Samuel Avalos, it was clear the reminders of the entrapment were never far away. “I live in a house that creaks, and when I am asleep and hear that groan, it reminds me that I am back in the mine,” said Avalos. “It takes a while for that to clear out of your head.”

But rather than be critical of his turn of fate, Avalos talked enthusiastically of gathering the cash ($7,000) to qualify for a government housing grant ($14,000) in order to buy his dream house—which at 600 square feet is a modest fantasy. He shows off cellophane-enclosed letters to the minister of housing in which he humbly lays out his argument that he should be jumped to the front of the line of those waiting for housing subsidies. The letter is signed, “Samuel Avalos, miner 22, pulled from the depths of hell.”

And on the last page, he has a copy of his employee's contract—the original pact with the devil that landed him first at the bottom of Chile's most dangerous mine and then atop the flotsam and chop of the world's media wave. “That's worth something,” he said proudly. “No one is ever working at that mine again.”

That certainly is one of the few comforting thoughts still ricocheting inside the heads of “Los 33,” a band of daring survivalists.