THE SHADOW DID US BAD
-A love story from a far flung desert media hole-
I was another of the one thousand cameramen consuming the same daily updates in Camp Hope being fed breakfast, lunch and dinner by the government.
The truth was that most of the time at Camp Esperanza, nothing much happened other than lunchtime and Roly the clown doing his rounds at the family tents in his sinuous way of getting his world renowned picture taken. And click click they did, at anything really, to the effect that the Chilean government learnt how to play up their own orchestration of events, creating a kind of window, if but a caricature, to how it wanted the country to be portrayed to the World. What was always certain was that the real story was 700 metres below the ground - the stories which are beginning to unfold as the 33 miners erode their vow of silence and speak of their experiences, and in particular of the first 17 days before they were found alive.
For quite some time the daily activities from below were closely monitored. Psychologists and medics detained letters, any news and objects they deemed unhealthy for the miners were withdrawn as was any information coming from below speaking of the harshness of those first lost subterranean days. Families were prohibited from sending anything that may affect the miners psyche, chocolates, ipods and smokes included. Big brother knew what was best.
In the midst of this I kept a close vigil on Edison Peña, a miner who appeared to be the first to describe in his letters the real conditions of inside the mine and whose fears were that the mountain could swallow them before they could be rescued.
Here wrote in hyphens:
- We are the ones below the earth.
- If we run out of air, imagine.
- If it all collapses, imagine.
- If someone gets seriously injured, imagine what we would do with that person inside.
- Let’s not separate ourselves from the real sense or how grave it could become inside.
- It is us here in the darkness.
- We can die at any moment by a collapse.
Angelica, Edison’s partner, treasured these letters as though her lover’s words were bestowed with the voice of reason beyond the far-too-often farcical angle represented by the government. Her own quest went towards hunting down the truth, watch-dogging the very movements the authorities on top were celebrating. The day the ‘Phoenix’ rescue capsule was launched seemed to epitomise this; painted in the colours of the Chilean flag but appearing more like Captain America, with the torch-carrying mining minister himself Lawrance Golborne paraded as a saviour. Any one who spoke against the epic rescue preparations was deemed a haggard cynic.
The truth was that the Chilean government had it all to play for. Had a triumphant rescue attempt not been fulfilled, there would have been many more severed heads other than the scapegoated San Jose mine owners. Prior to the collapse, much of the conditions within the mine where lackadaisical, responding to weak government inspections and a general culture of negligence that carries throughout Chile’s mining industry. The incredible engineering feat that has now remapped this slither of a country has completely overshadowed the State’s blame in the events before the collapse.
Soon enough porn was sent down. Love letters also took on new eloquent forms. The borehole connecting the lower world with the loved ones on top became the emotional umbilical cord maintaining the miners’ sanity. Finally in the first established video conference call, Angelica would get to see her cherished Edison. She took with her, her 3 year-old daughter Nakita from a previous relation and Edison’s brother Rafael. Taken by the moment, Edison went into an acapella frenzy of Elvis songs - drowning the cries of “Daddy!” shouted by Nakita. His eyes appearing silvery, possessed even. He spoke of his new running routine, displaying his calves and chopped off boots personalised for better runability.
“He was always an extrovert. Perhaps he hides in his different personas to make us feel he is doing ok. But it’s difficult because when we go to him and want to talk to him about serious things, we can’t because he becomes Elvis.” - Angelica
The turtle race continued as the three different rescue plans were underway. Plan A, B and C. Plan D involving dynamite was quickly discarded as a kamikaze bypass, belittling the very wild cat miners that had conceived it. Each drill had its own set backs, stoppages and reignitions. Plan C labeled the Eiffel Tower of the desert was deemed the favourite owing to its sheer monstrosity. But as soon as Plan C began to have repeated hiccoughs the families and miners become increasingly uneasy. Edison was becoming less fluent in his letters and increasingly angry, and not only with the situation but with Angelica.
It was then that Angelica began to question her whole reasoning behind her search for truth, for the very pillar that maintained her at the mine and the centre of her sorrow now began to reprimand her. She chose at this time not to speak to me, shutting herself in her room till Edison would ask for forgiveness. When that chance finally came via a telephone call Edison hung up before she could even get a word in. Angelica was distraught.
Their own story as to how they met is central to understanding why. Three years before Edison had arrived up North in search of prosperity from the capital Santiago on a short-term contract as an electrician. He stayed at a local bed & breakfast in Copiapó the proprietor of which was Angelica, a woman ten years his senior, also dealt with life’s losses, from her previous husband dying at 33 from a heart attack, and losing both her parents before she reached her twenties. Angelica paid no attention to Edison’s overtures. His tenacity eventually got the better of her, lured as she was by his spontaneous romantic gestures. Edison returned to Santiago now decidedly in love and began to visit her on weekends - a 20 hour bus journey both ways. Finally the chance for them to be together came when Angelica got Edison a job at the San Jose mine, unbeknown to her a notoriously unsafe mine that paid well and wasn’t stringent on employee qualifications. He had only served four months before the collapse had happened. Was he blaming her?
“I could easily forget everything and erase it all from scratch. If I am no longer going to be with him, it’s better to forget everything. It is too much pain as it is for him to play mind games with me.” - Angelica
Edison in the meantime ran, like he never had done before. Inside the darkness with a torch, on his helmet, sometimes holding one in his hand. He notched 8k a day. His message to the people on top was clear - “People should be thankful of the bodies they have.” Next to his bed lay a toy sun.
The good news that Plan B had finally made it to the miners and that little was left before they would be pulleyed-out changed the atmosphere below within seconds. Camp Esperanza looked like a global village with the miners' families gathered around and flocks of curious reporters queueing up to talk to them. Cameras would get in between the cracks to film the precious expressions of bottled anxiety. Not even journalists that kept close contact with the families in the weeks before the mayhem could expect any loyalty. Angelica stood around nervously, looking freshly groomed from her visit to the hairdresser's and beautician from the day before. Although she was afraid that something could go wrong with the rescue plan, she was even more anxious of the person that would emerge.
The final hours were something like the birth of a stranger with feelings of discomposed excitement. It was past midnight. All the journalists were glued to the same screens the whole world seemed to be watching. The tension and hunter survival aversion towards getting the best close-up reaction shots of the families of the miners brought down tents and chaos. And then he was out; Florencio Avalos, and at steady intervals the mountain coughed out the 32 miners remaining.
The television machine unhinged itself. New stars were in the making.
Wading past the Chilean national channels flapping chequebooks and tripods, I finally got to Angelica’s front door where I was told to wait. Edison was being interviewed. Money had been paid. To my favour the weeks of friendship with Angelica gave us the right opening; Edison was grateful for our support.
Edison looked withdrawn, shifty even, avoiding initial eye contact. But when asked of how he was, he had no apprehensions.
Why did you run so much Edison?
Why did I run? I ran because of the fury in my chest. I ran with a torch in otherwise complete darkness. When the rocks in the tunnel ceiling were wet they would leak and the mountain would creek. In that moment any large rock falling could have proved fatal. But I didn’t care I still ran. And I’d wear my headphones with my mp3 on, so I couldn’t hear the mountain. My trainers would get all muddy.
Did the mountain ever defeat you?
Almost. Do you know what it is like to cry of hunger? Does anyone know what it is like to cry of hunger? You couldn’t compare it to Africa. Because down there are no roots. There was nothing you could do. It was as though the mountain was telling you – with a glaring neon sign – that you will die, and die slowly, and there is nothing you can do about it.
What did you make of the probes when they shot past trying to locate you, what were you thinking?
We heard the sondas. But we also knew that for them to find us it was a little like that game…buckaroo. We knew there was a strong possibility they would never hit the targets. At one point we gathered all the explosives we had and thought that by creating a massive explosion it would alert the people on top. Turns out they never heard it. I seriously believe God came for us at the very last minute.
Edison opens another beer; it’s a celebratory moment. It’s his fifth in the night. As the night progresses he becomes more volatile, breaking into song, expectedly Elvis. Apart from the slurred American twang he carries it off well. Soon enough he also begins Popeye, Rocky and Tom Jones impressions. It is difficult to get a word in.
The following day we meet with the whole family for a day out at the beach. In an off moment Angelica provides me with insight into his mental condition. He is out control. Histrionic. Yet she is looking out for him. Sticking by her man.
Some of his childhood friends have arrived. His cell phone doesn’t stop ringing, as he garbles the same unintelligible mantra – ‘I want to spread the honey so that everyone can touch it, because everyone deserves to be happy.’ But his persona seems offish with an air of strange pride reeling off the salutes from randoms on the street. It’s difficult to break the ice. More and more drinks are opened.
The cabins at the beach had now been identified by several media outlets as a retreating point for at least three miners. Massive telephoto lenses arrive, cars and jotting journals. At one point it almost feels like a zombie film where every other human is not another tourist but a journalist trying to eat the same story. Impaired by the overt attention Edison lashes out at a colleague of mine, striking him almost.
Some space was needed for separation.
The following day Edison, nursing a hangover, appeared a shadow of the extrovert from the day before. Angelica told me he had ran to the shore at 3am going on his knees asking God for an explanation. This time speaking from well inside his shell I finally understood the meaning about the message he was trying to express.
"My message is that man can do it - even in the most adversible conditions - man can do it.
People outside still don't understand. They see the images but they are ignorant of how it really was. This isn't my understanding. Every day I wanted to get out, every day, every day. Somehow at one point I got used to it. I could live down there and get by. With no light. With nothing. I thought I was never coming out.
There are things I will never be able to tell. The devil was there with me sometimes. I heard sounds and voices. He was on my back. And you know what I did? You know what I did? I put my headphones on and kept running. So whilst the others huddled together near the light, I went into the darkness."
Days following, speaking to Angelica, she spoke how Edison had had an alcohol induced coma. Incredibly three days later, against the orders of the doctors, Edison came second in a triathlon race. Edison was back in shape. From around the world sport companies began mulling over the commercialibilty of the running man of the tunnels - many foreign invites promise a new stage beyond anyone’s belief. Next to him Angelica’s fears materialise.
“I am afraid because of Edison’s personality. Knowing how he is. I think the exit has worked against him. All the TV stations want him to appear, they are going distort his situation. And yet maybe he wants to experience all of that. From my part…I love him very much, I try to advise him not to expose himself in that way, and that we should try and lead a normal life. But I fear in a short time he may fall again – and it will be ugly.”