It was, countless newspapers and magazines informed us, the “most triumphant” story of 2010. The rescue of 33 Chilean miners in October, who spent 69 days trapped 2,000 feet underground after a tunnel collapsed, was broadcast live from the San José copper and gold mine near Copiapó, a provincial capital in the Atacama Desert, to a massive world audience. After weeks of suspense, the event was “inspirational,” “spectacular,” “captivating,” and “miraculous,” to quote just a few adjectives from the coverage.
As one of the millions who could not take their eyes off the rescue pod as it jerkily ascended, I can attest to feeling more than captivated. Having studied and lived in Chile for good parts of the last 40 years, I smiled, cried, and shouted with everyone else. Chi-chi-chi-le-le-le! Viva Chile!
Public fascination with underground rescue efforts is not new. Whether the visceral horror of being buried alive is a primal fear or not, we are riveted by stories of people trapped underground. In 1936, an estimated audience of 100 million listened spellbound as a radio correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Commission reported on the rescue of two men trapped in a mine in Moose River. The 1987 live-coverage rescue of “Baby Jessica” McClure from a Texas well almost single-handedly made CNN a global media outlet. Closer to our own day, 127 Hours (2010), the movie version of Aron Ralston’s dramatic saga of being trapped for five days in a canyon passage in Utah, is but the latest such story to attract our fascinated attention.
In the case of the Chilean miners, more than 1,000 journalists covered the story worldwide. The most prominent feature of the media coverage was that there wasn’t any until August 23, more than two weeks after the tunnel collapse at the San José mine. Perhaps the story had too much of an air of weary familiarity to catch any editor’s eye, occurring, as it did, exactly four months to the day after an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 coal miners.
Media interest sparked to life when a rescue worker’s drill emerged at the surface with a note attached to it: “The 33 of us are OK in the refuge.” Game on. By the time the miners were en route to the surface over a 24-hour period on October 12–13, an enormous global audience was glued to the Chilean national television feed, which was the only one allowed to shoot close-ups of the rescue capsule emerging, and which operated on a 30-second tape delay in case of any embarrassing complications.
The rescue was celebrated as a triumph of technology, skill, experience, and willpower, and it certainly was. But it was also one of the most sophisticated and dexterous public relations campaigns ever mounted, one that executives will study for years.1 Every shot of the rescue was framed so as to visually link the miners’ fortitude with the resolute leadership of Chile’s conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, and to merge them into Chilean identity itself. Knowing this does not take away from one’s joy at seeing the miners emerge safely, but neither should we ignore Piñera’s interests and his gamble. From the moment it was known that the miners were alive, the president, whose polling numbers were in decline after only six months in office, decided to go all-in for the rescue. His team was prepared to reap all it could from playing a successful hand.
Piñera’s popularity and that of Laurence Golborne, his minister of mines, improved after the rescue (fueling speculation that Golborne will contend for the presidency in 2013). But the rewards for Piñera and Chile were more than in generating goodwill. In November Codelco, Chile’s state-owned copper-mining corporation (which did not run the private San José mine but was called in to oversee the rescue) sold $1 billion in 10-year notes at their lowest-ever pricing (that’s a good thing), equivalent to what North American or European corporations could get, and considerably better than interest rates charged by much stronger state companies like Petrobras (Brazil) or Pemex (Mexico). As one banker reflected, “That story was very positive for Chile in general, and Codelco came out of it well too.”2 (No one noted the irony of Piñera, the free marketeer, having to rely on a state company to pull the private sector’s buns out of the fire.)
With the miners safely above ground, the narrative arc most often tilted to the individual miners and their idiosyncratic stories: the Elvis impersonator and long-distance runner, the man with the mistress and a wife, the preacher, the medic. We were asked to consider how their lives would be changed by the fame that awaited them. Strangely, the story was now about us and how our interest in these men would surely change their lives. The spectacle had become the story.
What the media has delivered since the rescue is a variation on an old theme: When “ordinary” people achieve sudden fame or fortune, they are sure to suffer. This was the conceit behind a late-1950s TV series, The Millionaire, which each week saw an anonymous donor bestowing that eponymous amount, no strings attached, on an unsuspecting but deserving recipient. Most often, the windfall changed their lives for the worse, as greedy relatives and workmates hounded them for cash, they wasted their gift on useless baubles, or they tried to live a life they weren’t cut out for. It always seemed to me, watching as a precocious Marxist preteen, that the series was designed to assure us that we shouldn’t worry about the poor since they are better off penniless but righteous.
Now the media once again set deserving men up for an inevitable fall, but they were much more unrelenting and much more able to create the story that they were covering. Story after story encouraged us to wonder what would happen to these good miners when the media circus’s klieg lights were trained on them 24/7. We watched them visit Graceland, Israel, Disney World, and Hollywood, run in the New York marathon, pray with President Obama, and attend a Manchester United–Arsenal match. But the media always had us wondering: When will they crack?
It wasn’t long before we read about workers returning to the hospital, unable to cope with their emotional distress; family members hurling rocks at a miner’s house; those taken in by promises of $6,000 for an appearance, but paid only $600; men who couldn’t sleep at night or burst into tears; and marriages compromised.
Other frequent narrative lines allowed a U.S. audience to claim ownership over the good bits of the story. Yes, this was Chile’s time to shine, but we had much to do with it: The hydraulic equipment used to rescue the miners was manufactured by the Cleveland-based Eton Corporation; two Pennsylvania companies, Center Rock and Schramm, designed the drill bits and rig used in the rescue operation; a Chardon, Ohio, native, Clint Cragg, “came up with a list of guidelines that the Chilean naval engineers should consider” when planning the rescue; and Denver-born Jeff Hart was flown in from his job drilling wells in Afghanistan to bore the escape shaft.3
While each U.S. town claimed its own local heroes, and those who helped most certainly deserve credit, few journalists reported that Piñera, who had spent an estimated $20 million to rescue the miners (as well as his own reputation) agreed to cover their medical insurance for only six months after the rescue, or that government officials remained silent when the insurer, Asociación Chilena de Seguridad, pounced on a technicality to terminate some miners’ insurance after only two.4 Piñera has boasted that “the principal wealth of our country isn’t copper, it’s the miners,” but once the miners were safely off touring Beverly Hills, the Chilean president made his priorities known.5 By the end of 2010, as the miners’ disability pay dried up, they looked grimly toward the future. Dario Segovia contemplated selling fruit.
“I’ve got to move quickly on this,” Segovia remarked, “because they’ve canceled my sick leave, and I’ve got to get back to work. I think I’ll start with peaches and grapes.”6 Like a state that spares no expense to send its soldiers to war but can’t scrape up the funds for veterans, Piñera’s government left its new heroes dangling in the wind.
What the press didn’t cover was as telling as what it did. Only a handful of stories located Chile within a narrative that adequately explained the dangers the miners faced. In this, we must admit to a certain complicity between the media and its consumers. (Billy Wilder’s 1951 film, Ace in the Hole, is a classic portrayal of this relationship.) We send miners deep into the earth to get things we need, want, or think we cannot live without, knowing full well that many will die and preferring not to hear about it when it happens. In 2010, 43 Chilean miners died from work-related accidents, more than the 34 who die on average each year.
In the unremarkable months surrounding the Chilean rescue, 26 miners died in China (October 17), a tiny fraction of the nearly 3,000 miners who died there the same year; 29 miners died in a New Zealand coal mine (November 19); 30 miners died in Turkey (May 17); 66 in Russia (May 8); and, of course, the 29 coal miners who died in West Virginia (April 5). Two months after the dramatic Chilean rescue, it was business as usual for the media. Only the Chilean press reported the death of Héctor Manuel Cortés on December 7 in a mine just 13 miles from the scene of the October rescue.7
Mining has always been dangerous work, but many, if not most, injuries and deaths in the industry result from the owners taking short cuts to keep expenses down. This was as true of the San José mine, owned by the Compañía Minera San Esteban, which was fined for safety violations 42 times between 2004 and 2010, as it was for Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch coal mine, which has been cited a whopping 1,342 times since 2006. In the Chilean context, the violations come despite record profits. In the first quarter of 2010 alone, Chilean mines brought in more than $4.6 billion (compared to the $2.3 billion earned by the country’s financial sector). Piñera has promised a large-scale revision of mining safety law but has done little besides naming a commission to study the issue. In the region around Copiapó, only three inspectors from the state agency in charge of mining safety must oversee 2,500 mines.
There are, no doubt, many stories that the media ignored that could have helped contextualize the miners’ rescue, but mining safety is one they literally refused to hear. Early in the morning of October 13, the second miner to be rescued, Mario Sepúlveda, turned to the cameras.
“The moment has come to make changes,” he said, his voice still full of adrenalin. “This country has to understand once and for all that we have to make changes in work conditions.”8
If you missed that, you’re not alone since you had to speak Spanish and listen carefully to hear him say it. Neither CNN nor the other English-language networks carrying live coverage of the event translated Sepúlveda’s words; they carried on their chatter over his comments. Sepúlveda was instead christened Super Mario, a framing that The Huffington Post followed. “As the ordeal continues through the night,” HuffPo blogger Curtis Wong wrote, “perhaps none of the miners is making as big of an international splash as Mario Sepúlveda, who’s being hailed as the San Jose mine’s ‘breakout star.’ ”9 Similarly, we know that the 17th miner to be rescued, Omar Reygadas, is an avid fan of the Colo Colo fútbol team, but not of his blistering critique of Sernageomin, the Chilean mine safety agency, which, he charged, “has never carried out its responsibilities well.”10
And yet the media had all the resources needed to produce more complex understandings of the rescue story. The few articles that achieved this goal only highlighted the failures of most reporting on the topic. In a poignant article that interrupted the feel-good coverage of mid-October, The New York Times correspondent Simon Romero, with the unmistakable assistance of Chilean journalist Pascale Bonnefoy, observed:
“For some here the triumph was a striking contrast to another set of events here in Copiapó—also involving its miners—from a much darker time in Chile’s history.”
Romero and Bonnefoy detailed how, soon after taking power, General Augusto Pinochet put Brigadier General Sergio Arellano Stark at the head of a mobile death squad, which he sent north to round up leftists. Dozens of the more than 70 killed by Arellano Stark and his Caravan of Death, as it was known, were taken to an abandoned mine shaft where their bodies were dumped.
“The mine rescue this week was so similar to how we rescued our relatives,” the son of one of the victims told the Times. “They were also down a 600-meter deep open pit. The only difference is that we didn’t use a capsule to lift their remains. We used a bucket for the few bones we could find.”11
Another difference, of course, is that Chile’s president, a billionaire banker and investor who has weakened an already porous regulatory system, is the first post-dictatorial president to have supported Pinochet. Or, as the graffiti sprayed on a Copiapó wall put it, “The right wing has returned to the scene of the crime.”
One does not take away from the drama of the miners’ rescue by placing it in a proper context. And if we truly wanted to honor their salvation, we would pay attention to what the miners have to say instead of talking over them.
Steven S. Volk is Professor of History at Oberlin College specializing in Chilean history and U.S.-Latin American relations. He was on NACLA’s staff from 1973 to 1984 and serves on its Board of Directors.
1. Robert Crampton, “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” The Times (London), February 19, 2011.
2. EuroWeek (London), “Codelco Mines Feel-Good Factor Around Chile,” November 5, 2010.
3. John Mangels, “Cleveland-Based Eaton Corp.’s Equipment Aided Chile Mine Rescue Effort,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), October 13, 2010; “Chilean Mine Rescuers Honored by Obama,” The Buffalo News, October 29, 2010; John Mangels, “NASA Engineer and Chardon Native Clint Cragg Helped Design Capsule Used in Chile Mine Rescue,” The Plain Dealer, October 14, 2010; Juan Forero and Jonathan Franklin, “We Never Lost Faith,” The Washington Post, October 14, 2011.
4. The Australian (Sydney), “Chilean Miners Slam President,” January 6, 2011.
5. Peter Prengaman, “Chile, Its President Stepping Up in the World,” Lexington Herald Leader (Kentucky), October 17, 2010.
6. The Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), “Miners Are Out of cash,” January 4, 2011.
7. Piers Scholfield, “Tras el rescate de ‘los 33’ el país sigue sin reformar la minería,” BBC Mundo, January 4, 2011.
8. Mónica González, “Un sistema laboral que desprotege al minero,” Centro de Investigación Periodística (Santiago, Chile), October 13, 2010.
9. Curtis M. Wong, “Mario Sepulveda Becomes Chile Mine Rescue ‘Breakout Star,’ ”The Huffington Post, October 13, 2010.
10. Scholfield, “Tras el rescate.”
11. Simon Romero with Pascale Bonnefoy, “Rescue Offers Redemption for a Region With a Dark Past,” The New York Times, October 15, 2010.