If you watched 60 Minutes last night, sandwiched between Revolution in Egypt and Lady Gaga, was a story on the 33 Chilean miners rescued last summer against all odds. Today, Penguin publishes 33 Men: Inside the Miraculous Survival and Dramatic Rescue of the Chilean Miners by veteran journalist Jonathan Franklin (see our review). PW caught up with Franklin to talk about his gripping account of one of most incredible survival stories this side of Greek mythology.
As a journalist, this must have been quite a story to cover. What was it like to be there as this was all unfolding, day after day?
I have interviewed Hugo Chavez, Tim McVeigh and hundreds of fascinating characters in South America, where I have lived for the past 15 years. Nothing compares to the madness, passion, and excitement of the story of the 33 miners. When they were rescued, I was just yards away, listening to the President, the miners, watching the first family reunions. It is moments like these that make me give thanks for being allowed such a privileged spot in history. But being a journalist is both a joy and a responsibility. I had such unprecedented access that I was hearing details of the miners' private lives that were hyper-personal, suicide attempts, clandestine love children, multiple affairs, on the part of the wives as well as the trapped men! I had to walk a fine line between informing the public and protecting these private domains. What right did I have to disclose an imminent divorce? And how is that even vaguely relevant to the tale of survival? To this day, I know many details of the rescuers and the miners that have never been revealed.
I found the story of what was happening above ground as fascinating as what was going on in the mine. As someone who was there throughout, what kind of stress were the families and the rescue workers under?
The families lived an unbearable torture session. It was 10 weeks of nerve-shattering drama, failures, small victories, and grand setbacks. If anyone deserves the ultimate credit for the successful rescue it is these 300 family members who camped in a hostile desert that was alternately freezing and scorching. They showed the power of paying witness to the rescue operation. Every day the rescue workers drove to the site and had to run an emotionally charged gauntlet of hope, pleading invocations, and the sensation that a permanent jury had settled in to judge their efforts. Many rescue workers and several government authorities told me these faces of hope motivated them to work not just overtime but in a superman capacity.
And what about those rescue workers?
The rescue workers put on a brave face to the world. They described the drilling, the psychological counseling and the technical challenges as bold, but not insurmountable. In fact, they wrote the playbook as they went along. No one had ever devised a rescue strategy to free trapped men after months. And the tube delivering all the supplies and rescue materials was no bigger than an orange. Imagine one of those tubes in a gerbil cage and then imagine it snaked down 2,400 feet underground. Next you have to lower medicine, food, lamps, and cots via that single precarious system? The entire rescue operation was fraught with uncertainty.
What did the world learn about Chile during this amazing story, and do you have a sense of how this episode lives in the hearts and minds of Chileans?
I have lived in Chile since 1996 and reported from Chile since 1989, so I know the nation better than my native Massachusetts. Yet I was still brought to tears by the generous spirit of the Chilean people. They have a native intelligence that is entrepreneurial at its essential core. Combine that native intelligence with an extremely cruel free market economic reality--my daughters, who were born in Chile, were hit with a 50% surcharge for arriving on Earth at 6 p.m. outside normal work hours!--and you have a populace that is extremely inventive, eager to find solutions. Thus, the emergence of 33 working class heroes in Chile is all the more important as the country’s elite and conservative press often fail to acknowledge the brutal income inequalities in contemporary Chile. Macroeconomic Chile grows at 6% a year, but that often does not translate into a rising boat for much of the working class.
This would obviously be a different book if the rescue had had a different outcome, yes?
Had even one miner died, Chile would have been deeply shaken. Their rescue was a rare moment of national pride mixed with fantasy, like the 1980 US Hockey Team at the Olympics. Had the entire group died it would have reinforced a Chilean characteristic of self-doubt. I feel Chileans rarely give themselves or their nation the credit deserved. This phenomenally successful rescue allowed them a rare spot on the international stage.
Have you kept in touch the miners and their families? The rescue is a happy ending, but how happy can it really be after such an ordeal?
The miners are in a very precarious spot right now. They are famous celebrities and they are broke. Despite claims of fame and fortune, they harvested only the former. Only a handful have been media savvy enough to cash in, others have no idea about the press and resorted to tactics like charging $500 per question, a tactic that quickly stigmatized them as unavailable for interviews.
The miners are also preternaturally dispensed to distrust psychologists. The men have little tolerance for talking about feelings or admitting emotional weakness. They are extremely vulnerable to long-term PTSD symptoms. I am afraid that Chile has virtually abandoned them. All but five will soon be cut off from medical disability leave, thus losing their only source of income.
The happy ending is that they are alive. The realistic ending is that they need a spotlight like never before, not the media but an anonymous billionaire who sends a check for $2 million and offers to pay for the group therapy they so desperately need. That 32 of 33 miners have been diagnosed with some form of PTSD is hardly surprising. Anyone who reads 33 Men will be brought into a world that was practically a textbook case of sensory deprivation and torture. Their survival is almost incomprehensible. What they lived, none of us can imagine. And now, they need the world not to forget them.