Miners have a rule: No one walks anywhere alone. A slab of rock can peel off suddenly and imprison a man for days. Or a miner can step into a fatal crevasse. The buddy system is an expression of the job’s perils and also the limits of its safety: What happens when every man’s life is in danger?
That’s the question on Hector Tobar’s mind in his chiseled, brooding new book, which tells the 2010 story of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and acclaimed novelist who lives in Los Angeles, Tobar spent four years interviewing “los 33,” their families and rescuers, chipping away at the mystery of how these men survived for more than two months, “suddenly and unexpectedly close to death, but still in control of their fate.”
That fate is well-known. On Aug. 5, 2010, a chunk of mountain 550 feet tall and twice the weight of the Empire State Building collapsed within the San Jose Mine, sealing the men inside. They were more than 2,000 feet underground. Seventeen days later, the Chilean government, with help from NASA and numerous international agencies, confirmed via a drill-fed camera that all the men were alive.
But the miners would not see daylight for more than two months. And because of a pact — and later a contract with Tobar — the men revealed to the public only selected anecdotes and nothing of the 17 dark days preceding the drill’s breakthrough.
The early moments of dread and shadow are the book’s real rewards, narrated by Tobar with a biblical tone: “They were trapped inside a kind of metaphor about the cycles of life and death, halfway on that metaphorical journey from the sunshine of being fully alive to the permanent blindness and deafness of death.”
Underneath guilt and grief, many survival books, such as Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm, reveal hubris at their core. But Deep Dark Down doesn’t concern itself much with fault or fate.
Instead, Tobar splits his story into three sections, each claustrophobic and psychologically piercing in its own way: adventure, imprisonment, post-crisis. That he has so vividly reconstructed a life-threatening event remembered differently by 33 minds is a mountainous feat of reportage.
Tobar flakes off the slimmest details, amassing some unbelievably immediate and terrifying sentences that almost rumble off the page: “At 1:40 p.m., three men are using a wrench to tighten the last two bolts on one of the squat machine’s five-foot-tall wheels when they hear what sounds like a gunshot. A moment later, they are knocked off their feet by a blast wave, and then enveloped by the sound of falling rock, and the walls around them begin to shake, and stones the size of oranges are falling around them.”
Only after the drill breaks through does the cave shift from a crypt to a prison. But when the men learn that their plight is getting 24-hour news media coverage, they begin to argue over hierarchy and the right to tell their story. At this point, the book becomes a psychological study of lockup, in which Tobar does justice to the setting and the human dynamic.
Once rescued, some men suffered in new ways. Edison Pena, whose run in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 7, 2010, became a symbol of perseverance, battled with alcoholism. Others suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. As Tobar works his way through each miner’s recovery, a more delicate series of portraits emerges.
There’s no unified story of survival, Tobar seems to be saying, only each man’s story.
Noah Gallagher Shannon reviewed this book for The Washington Post.