Chile miners reveal dark times underground

THE Chilean miners have begun their unfamiliar new lives as national heroes as darker details emerge of conflict and fear while they were trapped underground.

As the first few prepare to be released from hospital a deluge of TV producers, writers and even soccer teams are desperate for a piece of their story.

A day after their epic rescue, still wearing the oddly fashionable sunglasses that protected them from the bright light when they were hoisted from 620m underground, the men posed in hospital bathrobes for a group photo with President Sebastian Pinera.

The overwhelming public line is that unity helped the men, known as “Los 33”, survive for 69 days underground, including more than two weeks when no one knew whether they were alive.

But a few of the miners have revealed a darker side of their astonishing tale.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper miner Richard Villaroel, 27, said, “We were waiting for death. We were consuming ourselves we were so skinny. I was afraid of not meeting my baby, who is on the way.”

There have also been reports emerging that the miners were divided into splinter groups over disagreements, with some confrontations allegedly ending in violence.

Daniel Sanderson, a miner who had left the mine just hours before the cave-in said he received a letter from one of the trapped miners that described serious confrontations that became physical. “They broke into three groups because they were fighting. There were fist fights,” Sanderson told The Guardian.

Mine foreman Luis Urzúa, the last miner to be freed, told The Guardian he kept the group together by putting everything to a democratic vote. “We were trying to find out what we could do and what we could not,” said Urzúa. “Then we had to figure out the food.”

Villaroel lost 12 kilograms during the eight weeks underground as the men were forced to ration food. “We talked about it at the first meeting we had when we were trapped. We all agreed that we would all share the food that was there. You just had to rough it. Every 24 hours eat a small piece of tuna. Nothing else,” he said.

“We were getting eaten up, as we were working. We were moving, but not eating well. We started to eat ourselves up and get skinnier and skinnier. That is called cannibalism, a sailor down there said. My body was eating itself up.”

Water was another problem, as the only water available was what could be found in the mine. “It had a bad taste. It had lots of oil, from the machines, but you had to drink it,” said Mr Villaroel.

However, in an interview with Chilean TV Mr Villaroel had more upbeat recollections.

“We all supported each other,” he said from the hospital in the nearest main town of Copiapo, where the 33 survivors were receiving check-ups. “When one was doing badly, another would point him back in the right direction.”

Mr Villaroel said decisions were reached calmly and democratically. “If a decision was taken in which one person lost, most would still be winners.”

He paid special tribute to the vital role played by Jose Henriquez, the 54-year-old evangelical preacher who acted as spiritual adviser to the miners, many of them staunch Catholics, during their hellish experience.

“He was the key man who kept us together through all those days,” he said of the man dubbed “The Pastor”.

Now they face a new challenge. The moment they walk out the hospital doors, they’ll go beyond the reach of a government operation that has cared for, fed and protected them in a carefully co-ordinated campaign to ensure each of them would be in top condition.

“Now they’re going to have to find their equilibrium and take care of themselves,” the hospital chaplain, the Rev Luis Lopez, told The Associated Press.

A Greek mining company wants to bring them to the sunny Aegean islands, competing with rainy Chiloe in Chile’s southern archipelago, whose tourism bureau wants them to stay for a week.

Soccer teams in Madrid, Manchester and Buenos Aires want them in their stadiums. Bolivia’s president wants them at his palace. TV host Don Francisco wants them all on his popular Sabado Gigante show in Miami.

Hearing that miner Edison Pena jogged regularly in the tunnels below the collapsed rock, the New York City marathon invited him to participate in next month’s race.

What about a reality show? Some other kind of TV work? Why not, said television writer-producer and Oscar nominee Lionel Chetwynd, who said he expected projects were being pitched around Hollywood within hours of the rescue.

“Television is a quick-response medium,” he said, joking: “In fact, I think I’ll call my agent when we get off the phone.”

Meanwhile, the families and friends of the men of the San Jose mine were organising welcome-home parties, street celebrations, big dinners and even a few weddings, while trying at the same time to hold off the onslaught of demands from the media to learn more about how they survived.

The government promised six months of psychological treatment and help with medical needs. It made sure each has a bank account only he can operate, and coached them on dealing with the media.

The rescue team even asked Guinness World Records to honour all 33 with the record for longest time trapped underground, rather than the last miner out, Luis Urzua.

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