Joy, Harsh Realities Await Rescued Chilean Miners

Despite the media spotlight on 33 workers trapped in a Chilean mine, little is known about the dangers of that particular mine and what awaits the miners when they return to the surface. GQ's Sean Flynn reports on the mine, the miners' lives and the circus playing out above ground.

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Chilean officials hope to begin the rescue of 33 miners, later today. The men have been trapped deep underground for 68 days since the San Jose mine collapsed in Chile. For the first 17 days, they were all feared dead. There was a national sigh of relief when they were discovered alive. Since then, it's been a world-wide waiting game as rescue teams, fellow miners, loved ones and, of course, the international media assembled up top in a tent city called Camp Hope.

Sean Flynn, a correspondent from GQ magazine, wrote about his visit to Camp Hope for the November issue of the magazine. You can find a link to that article at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joins us now from the Durham bureau of our member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. SEAN FLYNN (Correspondent, GQ Magazine): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And The Associated Press reports that some 750 media credentials have been issued to cover the rescue when it begins late tonight. You were there a few weeks earlier. Can you describe, for us, what Camp Hope looked like then?

Mr. FLYNN: Yeah. You know, it was much smaller than you would have expected from the number of stories that were being put out. This is about a month ago, that I was down there. But reporters definitely outnumbered family members, fellow miners and we were all there chasing the same stories.

Coming back for the rescue, I just got an email yesterday from a man I met down there; and he says it's just insane, that the city is overrun with reporters. Helicopters are buzzing all night, keeping everyone awake. And he said that most of us just want the miners to get out because we are so very, very tired.

CONAN: And it has been a very long run. But at some points, this tent city, as I assume, some of the characteristics are permanent.

Mr. FLYNN: Less than you would think. I mean, it actually is a very, very small physical area. There are some temporary structures there, you know, plywood. The tents are tents. Where are they going to put 750 journalists is a little confounding, because we were all kept quite a distance away from the from any actual rescue operations. You know, there was no access to the mine head itself. There's certainly no access to the miners. And even just, you know, a month ago when there were several hundred of us, it was a little difficult to accommodate everybody.

CONAN: And it did take on aspects of the absurd. For example, members of the Uruguayan rugby team, who had survived the terrible crash in the Andes where they were forced to eat the flesh of their dead comrades, they showed up to support the miners and everybody is suddenly doing stories about cannibalism.

Mr. FLYNN: That was probably the strangest day out there. Because the same day the Uruguayans came - and you're right, everyone was doing the cannibal stories. There was a reporter for one of the English papers who was suddenly very distraught, because her editors had already posted a story under the headline: You Needn't Eat Your Friends to Survive - Plane Crash Survivors Tell Miners. Which, of course, they'd said no such thing, but she was under strict orders to go get some cannibal quotes - which she eventually did, oddly enough.

But that same day, the fisherman from Caldera - it's a little coastal town about an hour away brought in truckloads of fish and they had a huge fish fry. And somebody brought - there was a lot of '80s music playing and there were clowns entertaining the kids. And it was it felt more like a carnival than a vigil.

CONAN: And it is interesting, in that context, to understand, of course, these 33 men are now international celebrities, national heroes in Chile - one of them Bolivian. And, also, that you wrote, had they died in that initial mine collapse, we would know none of their names.

Mr. FLYNN: Correct. On average, a Chilean miner dies every 10 days, and most of them die in these independent mines. There are 317 other men who work in that mine. And they work there because what was so maddening about it, the San Jose mine was so notorious that it had to pay men extra to work there. And this is in a region of Chile where the employment is basically - unemployment, I'm sorry, is essentially structural. It's an overstocked labor market and they still have to pay a premium. It was known as a place where rocks fall from the ceiling. It was known as a place where you might die before the end of your shift.

CONAN: Yet, you also write that Chile, with all of these mines, is some of the most experienced engineers in the world.

Mr. FLYNN: Absolutely, yes.

CONAN: And some regulations that are, well, very, very cautious about where you can dig and how you can set dynamite and that sort of thing.

Mr. FLYNN: Of course. Yeah, and their state mining company is world renowned. And the technology to get these men out is really quite astonishing when you think about it, you know, drilling down through a half-mile of solid rock to lift these guys out. It's the smaller, independent mines there - you know, the best estimate is just in the state of Atacama, there are 1,300 mines. And there are four mine inspectors. You know, there's one - he's a union organizer, but the labor movement there is very embryonic. As he put it, the typical inspection, in addition to being extremely rare, is much like asking a man if he's a good husband, but not asking his wife.

CONAN: Which does not always lead to full disclosure.

Mr. FLYNN: You do not always get the full picture there.

CONAN: We also hear little about who owns this mine.

Mr. FLYNN: Yes. It's a company called San Esteban. They owned a couple of other mines. I believe they still own three mines that are kind of in operation. They have made very few public appearances since this happened. They did apologize before parliament and in the next breath, blamed the miners for removing some safety equipment. So it was sort of a halfhearted apology. The best guess is that they will declare bankruptcy and walk away.

CONAN: So there will be no lawsuits. Or if there are lawsuits, they will have nothing to sue.

Mr. FLYNN: There you go. In fact, one of the guys that I talked to, Gino, Gino Cortez, a rock had fallen from the ceiling just not quite a month before and took off his left leg. And he had just reached the beginnings of a settlement with the mining company where they were admitting liability, and then this cave-in happened. And now, he's pretty convinced that any sort of long-term disability payments he was going to receive are gone with the rest of the mine.

CONAN: Mining is a dangerous business in this country. Of course, we had the terrible disaster in West Virginia not so long ago.

Mr. FLYNN: Yes.

CONAN: And this, you know, in the best of circumstances, it can be difficult and dangerous. Can you give us any examples of why this independent mine in Chile is significantly more dangerous?

Mr. FLYNN: Yes. And, you know, mining is a dangerous job, and it's a pretty dirty job. But, you know, as you said, engineers can figure out a way to do things, not 100 percent safely, but very, very safely. This particular mine -as it was described to us by a number of miners and a couple of mining engineers - because of the type of rock that they were going through, because of the area where it was located, which is their fault zone, to be safe, up until the late 1990s, they would carve out seams of ore that were roughly four meters high by four meters wide. And then, after they finished one seam, they would descend 30 meters and start another seam. So that way, you had 30 meters of solid rock between these two seams.

In 2000, they reduced that distance to 10 meters, which gave them an extra 20 meters of rock that they could haul out for the gold and the copper. But then, even as you had those 20 meters between them, we had a number of miners tell us that it was very typical that once they carved out their four-meter high seam, they would work backwards and take out another four meters, and then go forward and take out another four meters. And eventually, you'd end up with all these different seams merging into one giant cavern. We were told that caverns of 40 meters high were not at all uncommon down there.

CONAN: And this is the kind of mining where the main shaft which spirals down slowly into the Earth - well, half a mile deep, in the case of where these miners are now that's large enough for large trucks to operate in. They haul out the ore.

Mr. FLYNN: Right.

CONAN: And...

Mr. FLYNN: Absolutely.

CONAN: ...the product it was interesting. The product is copper, but there are significant other ores that are delivered out of that mine too.

Mr. FLYNN: You know, gold the amount of the gold coming out of there at least, you know, it's - I certainly had to take my crash course in Atacamian mining. But we were told repeatedly that an average of 50 kilograms of gold was coming out of that mine, and that the rock there, the ore there contained between three and we heard varying estimates but between three and 18 kilograms or grams per ton of ore, which is, you know, most mines in that area, in the state, you're talking maybe a third of a gram. So it was a tremendous amount of gold. And, yeah, the copper was you know, there are several different types of copper they were pulling out of there. But they were pulling it out by you know, they were measuring that in tons.

CONAN: The other part of this that we realize is that these men are going to be all over our television sets starting tonight and for the remainder of the week as this rescue operation goes gets underway and, hopefully, goes very smoothly. It should take about two days to get everybody out. There are some, well, dispute over who should be the first and who should be the last, and all of those things. Nevertheless, these men are we going to be told that this is their way of life? Are they going to get back into the mines after this?

Mr. FLYNN: Oh. I you know, mining is a way of life. It's one of those things that - it's - basically, people like me show up and declare it's a way of life. I did not meet a miner who enjoyed being in the mines. I don't think these guys number one, they'll never have another need to go back into the mines. These 33, if they chose to go back to work, have more job offers than they could ever turn down.

But there are going to be books. There are going to be movies. One of the latest reports is that they very smartly banded together into a group of 33 and decided that no single one of them would go off and profit. That instead of having, you know, 33 competing books out there, they would work together.

CONAN: Maybe a tabletop book, a coffee table book.

Mr. FLYNN: Exactly.

CONAN: (Unintelligible).

Mr. FLYNN: And just try to keep it but, you know, right off the bat, people were raising money for them. And then you had the problems with estranged relatives, distant relatives, first wives who we never quite got divorced from 30 years ago, showing up and they all want a piece of it.

CONAN: And mistresses as well, yes.

Mr. FLYNN: Yes, yes, that was one of the famous stories down there, a woman named Marta had put up a shrine to her husband, Yonni, and the next day some love poems to Yonni were pasted over that shrine by a woman named Susana, who claimed that she was actually Yonnis wife. And then since then, apparently, two other women have emerged, including a long-forgotten first wife and another girlfriend that neither the current supposed wife and current mistress knew about. So...

CONAN: Yonni may want to be the last man up.

Mr. FLYNN: Well, exactly. Yonni's got a lot to answer for when he comes up. And - but, you know, here's this guy just living his life up there in the Chilean desert and, you know, now we're talking about it on American radio, poor Yonni's love life.

CONAN: There is also the story you tell of the wife of one of the miners who goes on and says he will never go back in the mines. His goal in life is to buy a taxi cab. And she goes on the most important quiz show in the world: "Who Deserves to be a Millionaire."

Mr. FLYNN: Yeah. That was - it was - I had missed the original broadcast, but it was still online for a week as streaming video. And she was not the only one. There was a daughter of another miner who was on that day, or that week, a very popular show. She tried very, very hard to win enough money to buy a taxi.

She needed, I believe it was 24 million pesos - or 7 million pesos, I'm sorry, so she could buy a taxi so that Mario would never have to go back into the mines. And she came up about half short of that. She missed - she didn't know where the oldest Islamic university in Egypt had been founded. It was Cairo, not Alexandria.

CONAN: Sean Flynn, thanks for the trivia answer. We'll keep it in mind next time we're on "Who Deserves to be a Millionaire." Thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. FLYNN: And thank you, I appreciate it.

CONAN: Sean Flynn, a correspondent for GQ. He wrote about his visit to the mine in Chile in the November issue of that magazine, on newsstands now. There's a link at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from the Durham bureau of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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