A decade ago, 33 Chilean miners became a symbol of hope and solidarity after surviving for more than two months trapped deep underground in the Atacama desert.
Today, far from the whirlwind of global media attention that greeted them upon their miracle escape, the men are at odds — mired in trauma, illness, jealousy and bitterness.
“We greatly enhanced the name of our country. Our accident opened borders, it made our country known and we’ve been treated terribly,” says Mario Sepulveda, 49.
On August 5, 2010, just after lunch, part of the San Jose copper mine in northern Chile collapsed underground, turning the 33 men — aged from 19 to 63 at the time — into prisoners.
It took 17 days to even find them alive 600 meters (nearly 2,000 feet) below, at the bottom of the century-old mine.
It then took another 52 days more before they were winched to safety through a narrow hole as the world watched on television.
The miners were greeted as heroes, revered for their solidarity in the face of crisis and their ability to overcome hunger.
They were offered free travel, given $10,000 each by an eccentric Chilean businessman, and Antonio Banderas starred as Sepulveda in “The 33,” a Hollywood retelling of their story.
But the good times didn’t last, as several of them told AFP.
Their journeys are different, but they share one thing — bitterness.
Jose Ojeda, now 57, was the voice of hope.
It was his message — sent to the surface through a drill on August 22 — that first informed the world the miners were still alive.
Today, he struggles with advanced diabetes that limits his movement. He walks with the aid of crutches.
Ojeda says he still has “nightmares and difficulty sleeping.”
He lives with his wife and daughter in the regional capital Copiapo on his government pension of roughly $320 a month.
It’s not enough to pay his medical bills in a country where health care is largely privatized and out of reach of many working class people.
“People thought we got a lot of money but it’s not like that,” Ojeda told AFP.
After an eight-year court battle, the Chilean government was ordered to pay $110,000 to each miner, and the San Esteban mining company was deemed not to be liable.
But the government appealed, claiming that 14 of the 33 miners already had lifetime pensions from various sources, because of their age or health.
The suit is still pending.
‘Like it happened yesterday’
Jimmy Sanchez was the youngest of the Atacama miners, arriving to work at the age of just 19 after dropping out of high school.
“It’s like it happened yesterday. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it,” said Sanchez, who also lives in Copiapo.
He never donned his mining helmet again. Jobs have been hard to come by.
“Once I went looking for work but when they figured out who I was, the doors were closed to me. It wasn’t my fault I was trapped,” said Sanchez, now 29.
Five years ago, psychologist Alberto Iturra, who has been helping the miners, confirmed that employers were hesitant about sending the 33 back underground.
Bosses “said to themselves that the miners would ask for leave at a moment’s notice, stop working or, even worse, not handle the stress,” Iturra said.
Sanchez was declared unfit to return to work for mental health reasons. He lives with his wife and two children on his government pension — in a house where there are 20 people.
He dreams of owning his own home.
The charismatic Sepulveda — who featured in many of the videos from inside the mine seen around the world during the long ordeal — has fared better than most.
The 49-year-old, who lives in the Santiago area, regularly travels in his capacity as a motivational speaker. Last year, he won a survival reality TV show.
With his winnings of more than $150,000, according to the network, he has built a center for children with autism.
The youngest of his six children, seven-year-old Marito, has a severe form of autism.
Omar Reygadas was one of the most experienced in the group of 33. he became a chauffeur, but now at 67, the widower is out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everything we experienced and saw in the mine is still alive for us, just the same as everything we lived through” in the aftermath, Reygadas told AFP.
‘Every man for himself’
After the cave-in, the miners — many of whom barely knew each other — had to quickly get organized.
First up, they had to make a list of all those trapped and then distribute the meager food rations in the safety shelter.
They ate two spoons of tuna and a half-glass of milk every 48 hours for the first 17 days, all while living in the humid darkness in temperatures of up to 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit).
They were so disciplined, they had two cans of tuna left over when they were brought to the surface.
“One of the things that helped us the most was humor. Even in the worst moments, we laughed,” recalls Sepulveda.
“We had a great time down there. We sang, we daydreamed, we made democratic decisions and no one went overboard.”
And yet that unity has dissolved since the miners emerged.
“The families provoked all these divisions between us. There was a before, a during and an after. After we came out, it became every man for himself,” Sepulveda said.
Sanchez blames money — he says the lawyers that drew up the contract in which they ceded the film and book rights to their story employed a strategy “to divide us.”
Some remained in the limelight, giving speeches like Sepulveda and Reygadas. That sparked jealousy among other members of the club of 33.
“Many of us worried about money and they forgot everything we went through,” Sanchez said, also blasting the lawyers who “earned a lot of money from us, and we got nothing.”
‘I want to go back’
The men are still bitter about not getting more money from the government. And Sepulveda says they haven’t gotten enough mental health care over the years.
“They released us quickly — we were only in therapy for a year,” he explained.
As the 10th anniversary of their ordeal approaches, the government has emphasized progress in mine safety. In 2010, about 2,400 inspections were carried out. In 2019, that number exceeded 10,000.
The Atacama miners don’t meet up together anymore. Most have returned to everyday life, and regained their anonymity.
After traveling the world and enjoying a brief moment mixing with Hollywood stars, Sepulveda says he would swap it all for a return to the mines.
“I dream of starting a shift, at the gate to the mine, with my colleagues and the shift manager. I dream of this,” he says.
“I want to go back and give my experience. I love mining and the work of a miner.”