Author discusses tale of 33 trapped Chilean miners at Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society event

The 33 miners were working underground in Chile in August 2010 when the unthinkable happened: With a horrible roar and rumble, the interior of the mine collapsed, entombing the men some 2,000 feet below the surface of the earth.

The men would later say that the collapse hit them “as a roar of sound, as if a massive skyscraper were crashing down behind them … The metaphor is more than apt,” writes author Hector Tobar in “Deep Down Dark.”

“The vast and haphazard structure of the mine, improvised over the course of a century of entrepreneurial ambition, is finally giving way. A single block of diorite (stone), as tall as a forty-five-story building, has broken off from the rest of the mountain and is falling through the layers of the mine …”

Tobar’s 2014 book chronicles the mine’s collapse, the harrowing 17 days the miners spent underground before the world knew whether they were alive, and their miraculous rescue 69 days after they were trapped.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist, Tobar was the featured speaker at the Jan. 15 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Grand Del Mar Resort.

The book was compiled after hundreds of hours of interviews with the 33 miners and their friends and relatives, along with videos shot underground before and during the rescue, as well a diary kept by one of the miners.

In an interview, Tobar, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children, said he traveled to Chile five times in the course of his research, and worked on the book for about three years. He also worked with the producers of a film about the miners, called “The 33,” which is scheduled for release this August, the fifth anniversary of the mine’s collapse. The film will star Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche and Lou Diamond Phillips, among others.

For the first 17 days, the miners were trapped in darkness with only a few packages of cookies and tins of tuna to sustain them, Tobar said. Their only light came from the lamps of their helmets, and the headlights of a few vehicles trapped with them. They had water, thanks to supply lines and tanks installed for the mine’s operation, but didn’t know when or whether they would be rescued.

By the time a drill broke through the ceiling of a tunnel close to them, they were nearly starved. Overjoyed, the men banged on the pipe that contained the drill bit to communicate their presence to the outside world. “Dios existe,” said one of the men, according to Tobar’s account. “God exists.”

Tobar, whose parents were working-class immigrants from Guatemala, found the miners intelligent and down-to-earth, although they were traumatized by their ordeal.

“I identified with them completely. I don’t think there’s that much difference between them and me,” said Tobar, a fluent Spanish speaker who worked in both South America and Mexico City as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

“These guys went through something akin to a war,” he said, and the experience left its mark on their psyches.

“It wouldn’t let go of them. They constantly have relapses,” he said.

While the government of Chile has awarded all 33 men a monthly pension of about $600, most have gone back to work, the majority into surface jobs in the mining industry. At least three went back to underground mining, although one soon quit because he suffered flashbacks of the mine collapse, Tobar said.

Adjusting to life after their rescue — the men were carried individually to the surface in a specially designed capsule called the Phoenix — was difficult, because of the trauma they suffered and their newfound celebrity.

Tobar captured their conflicted feelings in this quote from Edison Peña, one of the trapped miners: “All the evenness of life, the ‘light’ part of it, really stunned me. It shocked me to see people walking around, living normally. It shocked me because I would say, ‘Hey, where I come from it isn’t like that. I come from a place where we were fighting desperately to live.’ I came out to life and I found this s--- called peace. It threw me off. It threw a lot of us off.”

One of the things that struck Tobar, he said, was how, during their ordeal, the miners thought mostly about their loved ones above them on the surface.

Tobar said his own experience working on the book “reaffirmed my faith in family and familial love. That’s really what the book ends up being about.”

He made a conscious decision not to shy away from the personal stories of the lives of the miners and their families, no matter how complex and messy their entanglements and dramas.

“I didn’t make them into heroes, I didn’t make them into victims,” he said. “I made them into who they were.”

For more information, visit www.hectortobar.com. “Deep Down Dark” is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble (and Barnes&Noble.com), among other outlets.

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