Trapped Chilean miners thought of suicide, smoked pot
Josh Visser, CTV.ca News
Published Saturday, February 19, 2011 6:15AM EST
With hope dwindling that rescuers would find them and their starving bodies on the verge of shutting down, the 33 trapped Chilean miners turned to thoughts of suicide and cannibalism, according to a new book.
But American author Jonathan Franklin -- who has written an extensive account of their time underground and their rescue in the just released book "33 Men" -- says those moments were outliers.
"Obviously, the men are starving to death . . . they looked for bugs, they couldn't find bugs, they ate every orange peel they could find in that mine . . . they talked about suicide, they talked about cannibalism, but these were passing fears," he told CTV.ca in a telephone interview. "It was never like they all thought about suicide, or cannibalism."
"These were temporary subjects in an epic struggle. These guys would have never have lived and survived if they had been completely focused on suicide."
Much of "33 Men" is focused on the initial 17 days the men spent trapped underground with dwindling resources and hope.
There has been much speculation about what happened in that time, especially after it appeared the miners were refusing to talk about those dark initial days after their eventual rescue.
"There was a sense they weren't supposed to talk about their first 17 days, but when you actually ask them, they say they weren't supposed to talk dirt about anyone else," Franklin said. "Each one was allowed to tell his individual story."
And when they began to tell their stories, they admitted there was anger that lead to shouting, and the occasional fist thrown, but nobody was singled out.
"These people are superhuman, I have such respect for miners. But I had the same doubts. Why didn't they go to ‘Lord of the Flies?' And when I asked them that . . . one of the leaders said . . . ‘humour and democracy,'" Franklin said.
Franklin says that the miners are evidence that "under extreme circumstances, under the most harrowing conditions, people tend to act well. In the worst possible circumstances people are capable of incredible deeds of selflessness, of bravery and courage." "
New details emerge
"33 Men" details the miner's initial 17 days in excruciating detail -- the mold that was growing on their skin in 35 degrees Celsius heat, the 25-calorie spoonfuls of tuna every two days and how close they were to death when the first drill reached them.
But after rescue workers made contact with the miners and were able to send items down the shaft, the miners' dark thoughts turned to more base desires to help pass the time.
Family members smuggled pot to the miners in their letters, and small groups of the miners would sneak off to smoke it, leaving others out of the loop.
They "never even offered me one," miner Samuel Avalos is quoted.
The drugs, instead of promoting camaraderie, were divisive to group morale, officials thought, and they considering using drug sniffing dogs to intercept the shipments.
Then of course, there was the absence of their regular sexual partners, and the miners were soon requesting some help in that department so doctors worked on how to appease the men's sexual desire.
Pornography and pinups were sent down, and at one point, a donor offered to send 10 inflatable sex dolls to the trapped men. But that idea was shot down.
"I said 33 or none. Otherwise, they would be fighting for inflatable dolls . . . ‘You are flirting with my inflatable doll,'" medic Dr. Jean Romagnoli says in "33 Men."
The books also reveals how the actual rescue of the men was hardly the easygoing affair that millions watched on television. An avalanche in the escape shaft disabled a fiber-optic line, shutting down the video feed, halfway through the rescue.
Officials worried that another landslide could permanently close the shaft, trapping the remaining miners below, while others were celebrating aboveground.
Yet while rescue story played out as it was hoped, most the miners would find their return to the surface after 69 days below would not be a panacea to the ills of their underground prison.
‘They are so confused'
While the surface held their families and friends and the riches was held up as a carrot, most of the miners have struggled with their new lives, Franklin says.
"They went from one bizarre world to another," he said. "First they were underground living isolated from the world with no contact and then they have the floodlights of Hollywood in their eyes. And now they are somewhere in between, trapped in limbo."
"They are so confused."
Nearly all of the miners are struggling with some form of post-traumatic stress. Edison Pena, who ran in the New York Marathon and sang Elvis on Letterman, was hospitalized for anxiety. Another miner, Alex Vega, has begun building a wall around his house for no reason.
"They are not sure who they are, where they stand," said Franklin, who has maintained contact with them. "They are not the same person they were . . . but how are they going to find a new life? That's the real challenge.
"It's going to be very difficult for them to find a viable path where they can make a living and . . . avoid going underground again."
The riches that they have promised have yet to appear and while they are expected to win a lawsuit against their mining company, that money has not yet arrived and who knows how much of it there will be. Their government benefits ended in December.
Franklin says the majority of the miners keep in touch, and that is when they are at their most healthy.
"(With each other) they are like little kids, they are really happy, but individually . . . when they are alone, they are suffering," he said.