A Year Later, Chilean Miners Sift Through Trauma

Originally published on August 8, 2011 7:00 am

A year ago, most of the world had never heard of Copiapo, Chile, nor given much attention to the lives of the miners who went down into its copper mines daily. That was until Aug. 5, 2010, when a cave-in at the San Jose copper mine trapped 33 men more than 2,000 feet underground.

Once the Chilean government knew the men were alive, they focused on a massive rescue effort, and after 69 days, the men ascended as celebrities of sorts. A year on, the movie rights have been sold, but fame has not brought the fortune they expected.

Journalist Jonathan Franklin reported on the rescue and is the author of 33 Men, a definitive account of the rescue that was published in February. He told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that he took on the project because he knew "fame is very fleeting, and you could kind of see this setup where these working-class heroes were dumped into the media treadmill."

Franklin says the men didn't know how to deal with the media and their newfound fame.

"It's also a bit of a schizophrenic existence, you know, one day they're in a five-star hotel in Tel Aviv, and then right after that they fly home to Chile, where maybe they don't even have running water," he says.

Of the 33 men who were trapped, two went back to the mines. The others, Franklin says, are looking for work. Some have vegetable stands, some are truck drivers and one is a boxing promoter.

"Psychologically, a lot of them would say, 'I'm going back to mining. I'm a tough guy. I'm a miner.' But I remember one of them explaining that he lasted two minutes, and he was so scared that he got dizzy and he ran out of the mine," Franklin says. "Another man, when he started looking at the mouth of the mine, he started crying. And I said to him, 'But Victor, you're out ... you survived.' And he said, 'Yeah, but my happiness is still inside there.'"

Doctors and health officials say 32 of the 33 miners were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Some of them had nightmares, some of them had trouble relating to their children, others were fighting with their wives, one man was building a big wall around his house," Franklin says. "When I speak to these men, they talk about going to the psychiatrist, taking lots and lots of pills, but you get this sense when you talk to them that there's been no collective or group effort to solve these traumas."

The one miner who was not diagnosed with PTSD was a preacher. Franklin says he managed to avoid many of the problems that the other miners continue to face.

"His unbending faith and his leadership role really allowed him to have done very well," he says.

In 2010 the miners inspired people with their ability to work together under pressure. But there was a turning point in their collaboration, which they pin to television. When the miners got a TV and a projector underground, they started getting into fights about what to watch, and people started neglecting chores. Franklin says eventually the miners started sending back food that wasn't warm enough and iPods that didn't have the right music selection.

"So there's this real dichotomy between the union they had when they were completely cut off from the world and they had their own society, and this bickering and conflicts that began once the television and their so-called conveniences were put down to them," he says.

Whether the upcoming movie about the miners will reflect that change remains to be seen. Franklin says the men have been unified about project, though, agreeing to share all the revenue. The movie, he says, should offer the miners a psychological and economic boost.

"I think that the men need to feel loved again," he says. "They feel abandoned at this point."

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

What made you want to follow the lives of these men after they escaped the mine?

M: Well, I've been a journalist long enough to know that fame is very fleeting. And you could kind of see this set-up, where these working-class heroes were dumped into the media treadmill. These guys had no idea how to work with the media with this dose of fame. And it's also a bit of a schizophrenic existence. You know, one day they're in a five-star hotel in Tel Aviv and then right after, that they fly home to Chile - where maybe they don't even have running water.

INSKEEP: Well, how many of them ended up trying to go back to their old lives, just be miners again?

M: But I remember one of them explaining that he lasted two minutes, and he was so scared that he got dizzy and he ran out of the mine. Another man, when he started looking at the mouth of the mine, he started crying. And I said to him, but Victor, you're out, you survived. And he said yeah, but my happiness is still inside there.

INSKEEP: I wonder about post-traumatic stress. Did any of them suffer from what could be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress after this experience?

M: When I speak to these men, they talk about going to the psychiatrist, taking lots and lots of pills. But you get this sense, when you talk to them, that there's been no collective or group effort to solve these traumas.

INSKEEP: So 32 of the 33 were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. What about the one?

M: The only one who wasn't was the preacher, and he really was able to avoid a lot of the psychological problems. His unbending faith, and his leadership role, really allowed him to have done very well. He really seems to have skirted a lot of the problems that torment his fellow miners.

INSKEEP: It's troubling to hear this because these miners were such an inspiration to people at the time because they worked together under pressure, because they organized a little society for a while. And it is sad to hear that there's an aftermath to that. There's still a price for them to pay.

M: And a lot of that group feeling fell apart. By the end, they were even sending back the food saying, you know, the desserts aren't warm enough. Or they would send back their iPods saying that they didn't like the music selection. So there's this real dichotomy between the union they had when they were completely cut off from the world and they had their own society, and this bickering and conflicts that began once the television and other so-called conveniences were put down to them.

INSKEEP: I wonder if that change is going to be reflected in the movie that's going to be made of them, now that they've just recently sold the movie rights.

M: It's hard to know about the movie. We've heard lots of rumors, and there's been all sorts of speculation. But I think that this is finally the real deal. In this case, they've been very unified, and the 33 men have agreed to share all revenue from the movie. And they have a great Hollywood producer, a big team behind them. So I think that they finally will get their movie off the ground. And that should be a huge psychological boost as well as some cash. I think that the men need to feel loved again. They feel abandoned at this point.

INSKEEP: Journalist Jonathan Franklin wrote a book, called "33 Men," about the Chilean miners who were rescued a year ago. Thanks very much.

M: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.