Hours before Chile’s San Jose Mine collapsed in August 2010, several miners heard the deep rumbling sound of rocks falling through abandoned caverns. The noise was familiar, but its intensity seemed disconcerting. “The mine is weeping a lot,” the workers said to one another.
Many of the men felt uneasy, but they kept working. When one man asked his manager about an ominous crack in a tunnel wall, the response was another question: “What are you? A coward?” The remark reflected a broader indifference to safety; the mine’s owners had chosen not to purchase a seismic monitoring system that could predict the risk of internal collapse.
By early afternoon the crashing noises became impossible to ignore. One man remembered the sound as similar to the noise of many jackhammers. The walls started shaking, fist-sized rocks rained down, and blast waves swept through the hot tunnels. A huge block of diorite twice the weight of the Empire State Building had just collapsed inside the mountain, blocking the mine’s exit ramp and trapping 33 men thousands of feet beneath the earth.
The story of the entombment, survival, and ultimate escape of these Chilean miners is the subject of Hector Tobar’s new nonfiction thriller, Deep Down Dark. A novelist and journalist at The Los Angeles Times, Tobar conducted extensive interviews with the miners and their families during multiple trips to Chile. The result of his reporting is a nonfiction account with the elemental heft of myth and fable. A tragic natural experiment creates the conditions that pose the book’s central question: What happens to the minds of 33 men trapped with little hope of rescue and dwindling food supplies in the dark warm depths of a mountain?
Many of the men seek solace in religion. One compares the massive slab blocking their exit to the stone placed over Jesus’s tomb. Another notices that the number of miners is identical to Christ’s age at death. A significant subset of the 33 men meet daily to join hands and pray. In their minds and in letters to loved ones, many men resolve to change their lives if they survive. One wants to reconcile with an estranged son, some vow to drink less, most hope to apologize for various pains they have caused.
Even for the nonreligious, their situation is inescapably metaphorical. Some men think of the mountain as a woman seeking revenge for the violations the miners and their machinery have inflicted. Others imagine that they are waiting to emerge from the womb of the mountain. As the batteries of their headlamps gradually fail, they are plunged into a growing blackness that seems to anticipate the final darkness of death.
The men strictly ration their meager food supplies; each subsists on fewer than 300 calories per day. In one excruciating scene, they carve a single slice of peach into 33 equal slivers. Many become depressed and lethargic; others grow increasingly irritable, snapping at the slightest provocation. Geothermal heat from the earth’s core drives the temperature in the caverns they inhabit above 100 degrees, but tiny breezes from nearby abandoned shafts provide just enough air circulation for the men to survive.
On the surface, rescuers began attempting to drill through hundreds of feet of stone to make contact with the miners. The rescue operation required incredible feats of engineering and promised nothing certain: many government officials and family members expected to find only crushed or suffocated bodies. But hundreds of friends and family members began camping near the entrance to the mine, and the makeshift village became a symbol of hope that the rescue would succeed.
The miners often heard the noise of the rescue drills approaching them, but their desperate desire tricked them into imagining that the drill would break through at any moment. As days passed without any of the drills reaching them, they began to fear that the operation would be declared impossible and they would be left to slowly starve.
When the surface finally established contact with the miners after 17 days, family members, rescuers, and the Chilean and international media were shocked to discover that all 33 of the missing miners were still alive. The men dreamed that steak and beer would be sent down immediately, but at first they received only nutritional gels and notes through a six-inch hole connecting them to the world above. Eventually a working phone connection was established, and books, movies, meals, medicine, and newspapers were sent to the men each day.
A much larger and equally precarious drilling operation now began. Experts from around the world consulted with the Chilean government on how to make a hole large enough to extricate the men without causing the entire mine to collapse. The men were initially overjoyed to establish contact with the world, but once they realized that the operation to extract them could take months and was likely to fail, their spirits plummeted once again.
Tobar chronicles the physical and psychological ordeal of the miners with artful suspense and arresting details. The story is inherently gripping, but he shapes the material into a powerful tale of universal interest. It’s fascinating and unsettling to watch other humans endure the psychological torment of facing a gradual and painful death. But the infinitesimal breezes that blow cool sustaining air into the deepest and hottest sectors of the mine are also a metaphor for a psychological phenomenon: small gusts of optimism sometimes penetrate even the deepest chambers of a despairing mind.