Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar

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In August 2010, the San Jos mine collapsed in rural Chile, trapping thirty-three miners beneath thousands of tons of rocks. Sixty nine long days later, the world watched as all of the men were rescued. After months of sitting in the dark, they emerged as international stars to a world that was desperate to hear their story.

While the men were still stuck in the mine, they made a pact. None of them would talk about what happened down there. Instead they’d all tell their story to one person, in order to keep the public interested and make more money. The journalist they eventually chose was Hector Tobar and his book is Deep Down Dark.

Even before the collapse, the San Jos mine was dangerous. It operated without basic safety features. One of the miners had already survived five accidents. Men would purposely show up to work hungry to to “avoid the vomiting caused by working underground in intense heat, humidity and dust-filled air.” And that was the mine on a good day.
On a bad day-or a bad few months in this case- being trapped in the mine included starvation, dehydration, infection and brief Lord-of-the-Flies style battles over the meager food portions. Early on, a group of the miners raided the pantry, assuming they’d be out in a few days.  Of course, that didn’t happen and their rations soon ran out. The hierarchy of miners was thrown out. The shift supervisor buckled under the pressure and gave up his authority. Some men took over. Some found a stronger connection to God. Others just sat down and waited for something to happen.

Aboveground, no one knew if any of the men had survived the catastrophe. But seventeen days after   the collapse, rescue workers withdrew a drill they’d used to bore a hole into the mine’s emergency chamber, desperate for a sign. They found one-a note taped to the tip of the drill. “We are well in the Refuge” it read. They signed it “The 33.”

At once, the miner’s most pressing concerns were assuaged. Rescue workers sent them food and water while they try to figure out how to get them out. They also sent something else down-media access. The men learn they’re famous, and start squabbling.  Jealousies and rivalries heat up. While still trapped, some men asked for a notary to draft a contract prohibiting the others from profiting over the groups story. Aboveground, their families waged the same battles.

Deep Down Dark is a steady book. Despite a couple of random sexist-ish diversions (a woman reaches into her “feminine soul, whatever the hell that is; all the men work in the mine for the “women in his life” as if they don’t need food or a home either) the book stays on track. I don’t think it’s ever spectacular, but I enjoyed reading it. After only hearing their story on the news, it’s gratifying to hear the whole tale from Los 33.

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