Book review: “Deep Down Dark” by Hector Tobar
Special to the Daily
Even in this modern era, with our 24/7 Internet news, there are few stories that have captivated the world as deeply as the 69 day saga of the 33 Chilean miners who fought for their lives beneath the barren and desolate Atacama Desert, while an unprecedented collaborative rescue effort played out in front of live cameras nearly two miles over their heads. So vivid is Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Héctor Tobar’s account of the men’s ordeal, that the reader feels the oppressive blackness and the terrifying loneliness of the collapsed tunnels of the San José mine.
“Deep Down Dark” is a finely crafted piece of writing, detailing Tobar’s carefully researched investigation of the lives of the 33 men. Serving as the backbone for an upcoming movie (arriving in theaters on Nov. 13) starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche, “Deep Down Dark” is the result of many months of in-depth interviews with the men, in which the miners gave Tobar unparalleled access to the details of their ordeal. Those details are gripping and gut-wrenching — the stuff of nightmares and crippling phobias.
The day that nightmare began in August 2010, the 33 men arrived at their 12-hour shift like on any other day, converging on the mine from all across Chile, including from as far away as Santiago. An above-average wage served as the main attraction for the men who were a cross-section of Chile’s middle class. Several of the men had added the shift beginning that day as overtime, hoping for some extra income with the additional hours. All the men had families at home counting on those paychecks — and, famously, one miner had more than one family vying for his support.
The San José mine lies 35 miles from the nearest city and none of the miners’ wives or girlfriends, mothers, sisters or daughters had ever been to its gates, partly due to its remote and lonely setting in an unforgiving valley of rock and sand in the driest place in the world, but also because the machismo culture of mining in Chile shares an outdated and patriarchal superstition with sailors of yore, supporting the notion that the presence of women at a mine is bad luck.
After the collapse, though, the women arrived in droves, asserting themselves as the driving force behind the unprecedented rescue effort that unfolded over the next 10 weeks. The women served as a constant and vocal reminder to the rescuers of what the goal was — to return the 33 men trapped far below the desert to their families waiting just above in the world of the living.
As the trapped men spent agonizing hours and days looking back on the terrifying moments of the collapse that sealed them beneath the mountain, many of them wished that they, too, had been more vocal about the lack of safety precautions and oversight that had plagued the mine, which had, for over 100 years, increasingly honeycombed the earthquake-prone, mineral rich rock of the mountains comprising the Atacama Fault System.
The intensity of Tobar’s writing accelerates in the moments that the mountain begins to rumble. On that fateful August day, a chunk of the interior of the mountain, akin to a 40-story serac collapsing into the Khumbu Icefall on Mt. Everest, sheered away and pulverized many layers of the mine’s main exit route, the Ramp.
The reader is reluctantly transported deep into the hot and oppressive bowels of the earth alongside the men, and their fight for survival begins. On the surface, a massive plume of dust exits the mouth of the lone mine entrance, signaling a cataclysmic event far below. It quickly becomes apparent to the men on the underside of the collapse that a wall of rock now blocks their only point of exit. It is this moment when time stops for all of them and a terrible finality sinks in.
What follows is the meat of the narrative, an intensely enthralling account of what the men were experiencing as their food slowly ran out and their tempers flared, while the simultaneous and frustratingly slow rescue efforts were happening over their heads. Individuals emerge, above ground and below, showing the fractures and tensions that develop when people are under stress, and revealing the heroes who step up and take control.
Tobar portrays the diverse personalities of the miners, and he details the slow degradation of their bodies and minds as they struggle to survive in their tomb of rock, and as they come to terms with their new and bittersweet fame after the dramatic rescue witnessed by the world. “Deep Down Dark” makes for an intense reading experience, and captivates from start to finish.
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