Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar

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“Estamos Bien en el Refugio – Los 33”

You probably remember the story in the news from the summer of 2010 – a mine collapse in Chile left 33 miners trapped and, by many, presumed lost. What then unfolded was a dramatic news story that much of the world followed for the next two and a half months. That story is retold expertly by Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Hector Tobar, in his excellent book Deep Down Dark.

It’s remarkable how some dramatic re-tellings of known historical events are able to hold you enthralled despite the fact that you know how the story ends. (One example in cinema is the great film, Apollo 13. Moviegoers already knew the story of the unlucky mission, yet who among them was not still breathlessly waiting for that radio signal near the end of the film when the capsule – with deployed parachutes – appears on the screen.) I had a similar feeling while reading this book. I knew the story, yet in spite of that I was anxious for the trapped miners and kept “forgetting” that “everything would be all right” in the end. An impressive feat for a writer to pull off, I’d say. (at right below: near the end of “Apollo 13”)

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The book is logically divided into three parts, 1) the events leading up to the collapse, and the collapse itself, and the agonizing 17 days when the miners waited and hoped, not knowing if a rescue was even possible or, at first, being attempted; 2) the time from after the rescuers’ first (very small) drill hole reached them and offered renewed hope until their rescue; and 3) what happened to “the 33” after they rejoin the world above. Tobar also takes ample time early in the book introducing us on a more personal level to many of the miners who were to become the major players in the ordeal. The early pages of the book also includes something akin to a kind of “class photo” of the 33 miners, with their facial portraits in an array of rows and columns. I found myself frequently turning back to these photos to place faces with the names as events were described. In addition to the miners themselves, Tobar also relates the roles of their families and loved ones on the surface. (Pictures of some of the wives, girlfriends, and sisters of the miners would also have been a welcome addition for this reader) Many of the stories of their efforts are hardly less heroic than those of the men trapped below.

(Below: the message received from the miners when the first drill that broke through to their level was extracted. The miners sprayed red paint on the drill and attached the pictured note, wrapped in plastic and wound around the drill. Disaster procedure dictates that the initial communication should be brief but contain the location, the status, and how many survivors there are.  “The 33” accomplished this in just 7 words…)

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The book of the miners’ story left me thinking a lot about human nature. How, for example, when extraneous factors are removed from the equation leaving simply survival as the only goal, the men came together in a brotherhood that likely only those who have suffered together through great hardship can understand. Then how, after contact was re-established with the “civilized” world above, parts of this brotherhood began to break down. How, as the trapped men became celebrities, many began to think how money could be made off of them. How politicians began to want to be associated with them, and how jealousy also began to eat away and the bonds of brotherhood. One pact that the 33 made and kept, however, was that they would tell their story to one, and just one, writer and share equally any financial benefits of their story being told in writing or in film. I am thankful for this as it led to this wonderful book.

This story also recalled to my mind one of my favorite Haruki Murakami’s short stories, “New York Mining Disaster.”

I first learned of this book via My “NPR Addict” app on my iPad. I was scrolling through and listening to recent book-related segments and came upon one discussing a new “NPR Morning Edition Book Club.” The description of this, the club’s first selection, was intriguing and with a scheduled broadcast of 1/20/15 I thought I should be able to read it in time. I did, but I was unable to listen in “live” to the show since I was working. When I listened to the recording later, it was a great disappointment. The segment was less than eight minutes long, with a couple minutes just being a replay of the original announcement. Questions from listeners (via Twitter, FaceBook, or traditional phone message) were aggressively encouraged prior to the broadcast date, but they only shared five or six. The hashtag touted for the project (#morningreads) also appears to have been at least partially hijacked to be used for mundane Morning Edition news items, not just the book club related ones. For information (and a link to the broadcast) about the NPR Morning Edition book club follow this link.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA(Above: from a tour inside a coal mine in Beckley, West Virginia. On a personal note, I actually have mining in my family history. My mom is literally a “coal miner’s daughter” from the mountains of West Virginia – although my granddad did “get out” of the mines in his later years, he still worked for the company that owned the mines as an machinist and a kind of engineering factotum. Others on her side of the family have also worked in the mines. I’m claustrophobic myself, and I can’t imagine spending a eight-hour workday underground day after day after day….)

(Below: the “Fenix” capsule via which the trapped men were extricated from the mine.  The trips to the surface took about 30 minutes each. Talk about claustrophobia!)

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