Stories of hope and hardship of 'Los 33'

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Stories of hope and hardship of 'Los 33'
Copiapó, Chile:  José Ojeda can barely sleep without the comfort of a miner nearby to confide in when dreams shake him awake. Omar Reygadas, a great-grandfather more used to comforting than being comforted, cries easily. And Edison Peña, the miner who kept himself grounded by running miles underground most days, was hospitalized last week for emotional distress.

It has been 12 days since viewers around the globe watched, captivated, as one by one the 33 miners trapped in the San José Mine near here were pulled from nearly half a mile beneath the Atacama Desert. While the world has begun to move on, the men left behind are just starting to grapple with the enormousness of what happened to them.

They have, so far, remained mostly true to one another and the promises they made to speak only on their own terms.

Some details of the men's ordeal have slowly slipped out, as many news organizations vied for their attention -- flashing money or all-expense-paid trips to other countries to sit for interviews.

But the men have resisted breaking a pact they made to keep the most gripping details of their two months in captivity to themselves in the hopes that together they can secure book or movie deals, as well as build their best case for a lawsuit against the mine. They have held especially close what happened in the first 17 days after the gold and copper mine collapsed, the time before they knew rescuers were still searching for them.

In interviews over the past several days with The New York Times, four miners who agreed to speak without pay offered a view into the intense emotional struggles they faced underground, and now above.

Mr. Reygadas, 56 -- the 17th miner to be rescued and one of the oldest to have been trapped -- spoke the longest, for more than two hours.

He said he entered his first mine at 7, with his father, who was a miner. He does not scare easily; he survived two previous collapses at the San José Mine and narrowly escaped a third that killed another miner. But in the first days after the latest cave-in in August, he said, he cried, rolling over on his damp cardboard bed to face the wall so no one could see.

"I'm not embarrassed to say I cried, but I cried from helplessness," he said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared too, but I knew how to keep it inside to avoid sparking fear in others."

Mr. Reygadas said he was loading his truck just before going to lunch on Aug. 5 when he felt what seemed like an explosion. The pressure from falling rock "almost blew out" his ears, he said. The next sound he heard was miners shouting. Another miner, Yonny Barrios, 50, said "his ears felt like they were being sucked from one side to the other."

The men began to search for their friends. It would take eight hours before they knew no one had died.

But whatever relief they felt was short-lived. Within hours, the men were faced with a fateful choice. There was a way out, through a ventilation shaft. But after discovering that the ladder there was too short, they knew all they could do was wait.

Two days later, a boulder rolled into the shaft, sealing it for good.

This is where the narrative goes silent. Like the three other miners interviewed -- and those who have spoken to other media -- Mr. Ojeda, a 24-year-veteran of the mines, refuses to go into great detail over what happened in the next two weeks, as men wilted in the heat and shrank, their tiny rations of tuna and crackers too meager to do much more than keep them alive.

The story picks up again on Day 17, when the rescuers' drill bit pierced the roof of their refuge, starting the clock for their eventual freeing.

After that, the men say, there were many more light moments, despite the uncertainties of an unprecedented rescue plan. One day Mario Sepúlveda, one of the group's most extroverted figures, donned a makeshift blonde wig and impersonated the millionaire philanthropist Leonardo Farkas offering to give the miners jobs, Mr. Reygadas said. (Mr. Farkas, in reality, gave each of the miners about $10,000.)

The men's stories also reveal the emotional confines they imposed on themselves. Any miner who got out of line had to stand in front of the other 32 and ask to be forgiven, Mr. Ojeda said.

The craving for sleep was a running theme.

It was hot, about 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and humid. The men tore the seats from their trucks for makeshift mattresses, but there were not enough to go around and some nights, Mr. Reygadas said, they simply had to sleep, shirtless in the heat, atop the rocks. Mr. Ojeda said he would often wake in the middle of the night and talk to the miner sleeping next to him until they could fall asleep again.

Another miner, Víctor Segovia, 48, wrote a letter to his family detailing a nightmare he had. In it, the men were trapped, but in an oven.

Some of the men focused on those waiting for them above. "Inside my heart, I thought of my family," said Carlos Mamani, 24, of Bolivia, the lone immigrant in the group. "I talked to God."

Psychologists treating the men through telephone and video links from the surface were worried enough about them that they began filtering virtually everything family members sent down a relief shaft. Cheery letters were all right; notes about troubles at home were not. Some letters were never delivered and others were edited, according to Mr. Ojeda, who called the actions "unjust."

After about two weeks, the miners demanded that the censorship stop, arguing they were not as vulnerable as they seemed.

But medical officials remained cautious. Psychologists selected the movies that the men watched on a cloth hung on a cave wall using a smart-phone-size video projector. They were allowed to view Mr. Bean and Jackie Chan movies, but not films about natural disasters or terror.

"We wanted them to relax and enjoy, not get into deep reflection," said Alberto Iturra, the lead psychologist dealing with the miners. Eventually, the psychologists stopped filtering what went down the hole, feeling the men were stable enough.

In the end, the psychologists could not prepare the men for everything. Not the shock of stepping from the isolation of their cocoonlike rescue craft into the worldwide media glare. Not the reporters who camped outside their hospitals and homes. And not the shock of leaving "los 33," as they called themselves, to return to their other lives.

Mr. Reygadas said he had grown so close to Franklin Lobos, a miner who had played professional soccer, that he jokingly called him "his old lady." If one was asleep, the other made sure he saved food for his friend when it arrived down the borehole.

One thing the men were ready for was the lust for their story. They learned that lesson firsthand, from a group of Uruguayans who had survived a 1972 airplane accident in the Andes, depicted in the 1993 movie "Alive." The group paid the miners a visit and chatted with them via the modified telephone, Mr. Reygadas said. He said they counseled the miners to "not give away too much," as they felt they had.

Since the rescue, some men have been drinking heavily, according to Dr. Iturra and some of the miners. And several have shown signs of emotional distress.

At a dinner in their honor on Tuesday, Mr. Peña, the runner, broke down when addressing reporters. Mr. Sepúlveda grabbed him firmly by the shoulders and neck and whispered something in his ear, but Mr. Peña refused to leave the stage.

"Thank you for believing we were alive," Mr. Peña said slowly, his voice cracking. "Thank you for believing we were alive."

He was hospitalized the next day. (He has since been released.)

Dr. Iturra, the psychologist, placed part of the blame on the array of post-rescue options Mr. Peña was offered, including an invitation to run a marathon in New York City.

"These things demand a lot of strength, and this is generating a lot of anguish," Dr. Iturra told a local radio station.

Mr. Peña may have had another fear as well -- that when the men's moment was over, they would find themselves forgotten and without work. He said as much, one day while surrounded by reporters.

"After all these interviews are over you can ask us what we're doing," he said. "We're going to be selling candy in the plaza."

Aaron Nelsen and Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting.

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