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A year later, Chilean miners struggling with poverty, fame

Many of the 33 men rescued last year after being trapped 69 days underground attended a Mass yesterday marking the first anniversary of the mine collapse in Copiapo, Chile. Many of the 33 men rescued last year after being trapped 69 days underground attended a Mass yesterday marking the first anniversary of the mine collapse in Copiapo, Chile. (Luis Hidalgo/Associated Press)
By Jonathan Franklin
Washington Post / August 6, 2011

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SANTIAGO, Chile - They have an exhibit at the Smithsonian and a line of toys depicting their epic rescue. But most of the 33 men whose saga in a collapsed mine captivated the world a year ago face a new crisis today: poverty.

The miners became celebrities of sorts as soon as the details of their underground ordeal began to trickle out. The men were greeted by a burst of fanfare when they emerged in October after 69 days, and many expected their lives would improve with their newfound fame.

But back home in the mining town of Copiapo, most of the men have been unable to find a new way to earn a living, forcing them back into a life underground. They still live in their old rickety houses, where the cold desert nights and scorching days have compounded mental and physical health problems stemming from the accident.

And while Chileans mostly seem to ignore them these days, some of the miners have been publicly criticized for accepting speaking engagements while simultaneously suing the government that rescued them over allegations that it allowed a dangerous mine to operate. Although their trips have been all-expenses paid, few of the men say they have made money off their appearances.

“There are people, for example, in a store who walk up and get angry at you. I didn’t choose to travel; I don’t have the money to travel,’’ Edison Pena said in a radio interview. “And if we had remained underground? And if there were only a big cross with our pictures on it, would that be better?’’

One of the rescued miners, Pablo Rojas, 47, now works digging a tunnel in a small mining operation. Having worked in mining since he was 16 and lacking a high school diploma, Rojas said he had no other work options. With the publicity of the first anniversary of the collapse, Rojas said his nightmares and difficulty sleeping have increased dramatically.

Jose Ojeda, another of the miners, also returned underground but lasted just two minutes. “Inside the mine, in the darkness, I started to feel like I was suffocating, dizzy,’’ he said. He has since been working above ground, near the mouth of the mine, but he said even that was traumatic.

Shift foreman Luis Urzua, who took a leading role in organizing life underground during the crisis, is one of about a half-dozen of the miners who has capitalized on the drama. Urzua makes a living as a public speaker, telling the tale of how he helped guide the men through the entire ordeal.

But most of the men are suffering from financial problems, and many remain traumatized, said Jean Romagnoli, one of the lead doctors in the rescue operation. “They are taking uppers, downers, stabilizers,’’ he said. “They don’t understand why they are taking them, but they are fed up with pills. It is not pills they need, but the tools to deal with fame and the tools to rehabilitate themselves.’’

Though the trapped miners were promised millions in exclusive movie deals, and rumors swirled that Brad Pitt wanted to buy the rights to their story, it took them six months to organize their collective rights.

Last month, producer Michael Medavoy announced that he had bought the rights to their story. Though details of the deal have not been released, filming is expected to begin next year. Medavoy, who spent a decade of his youth living in Chile, has said he will focus on just a few of the 33 men.

A contract that the miners signed with their Chilean lawyers in December stipulates that they will share certain revenue, including any authorized book or movie deal.

Meanwhile, the men are hoping they will receive settlements from either of the two lawsuits currently filed, including the suit against the government for allowing the notoriously unsafe mine to remain open after years of sanctions, warnings, and citations.

A second lawsuit alleges negligence against the mine owners. The men are seeking $541,000 each in their suit against the government and an undetermined amount from the company.

A planned ceremony yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the mine collapse in Copiapo did not sit well with some local politicians.

“This is all a media and political show,’’ said Brunilda Gonzalez, mayor of Caldera, a port city near the collapsed mine. Gonzalez has accused the government of not paying enough attention to safety regulations in area mines despite boosting the budget for the national mine safety office by 40 percent.

Romagnoli lamented that the men had not been made ambassadors for workers’ safety. “In any other country, they would have been national heroes,’’ he said. “Why have they been abandoned?’’

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