Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar
Although you are very young, you may remember the collapse of the San Jose Mine in Chile back in August 2010. This was such a huge news story. Thirty-three men were trapped in the mine and the whole world was watching the rescue effort. It appeared that they must have died as weeks passed. And then, miraculously, after 17 days, all thirty-three were found to be alive. They had to stay underground for sixty-nine days, receiving food, messages, and necessities through a portal drilled for the purpose.
Engineers from all over the world ended up being heroes in this rescue operation. The mine was old and the owners had not kept up with safety standards. Rescuers kept drilling into the wrong places based on outdated maps of underground roads. Imagine being one of the miners, hearing the drilling, knowing that someone is looking for you, but being unable to do anything to help yourself, to be entirely impotent while the food ran out.
And it didn’t take long for the food to run out. The first aid and emergency kits were also dated and insufficient. But the thirty-three men made a pact to share equally. They knew it could be a long time before they were rescued, They knew that there was a good chance they would all die because the boulder that blocked the entrance to the mine was more like the Empire State Building than a rock.
And so the story of the miners and their underground survival is told. They ate only a few hundred calories a day, basically in cookies. And when those began to run out, they ate only every other day. They were starving, but had a source of water.
Any of us could imagine the tensions such a situation would produce, but until Deep Down Dark the story of the miners’ experience underground was largely a secret as they had made a second pact: to tell their story together and to reap any benefits—movie deals and the like—as a group.
So Deep Down Dark is not just the story of the collapse of the mine and the rescue effort. It is a portrait of each of the individual miners and of how they interacted as well as a glimpse into their families, many of whom camped out for months outside the mine, awaiting their rescue.
Some of the thirty-three men stand out in the reader’s mind. There is Mario Sepulveda, the man with the ‘heart of a dog,’ whose wife said, “’I knew that Mario wasn’t going to let himself die. . . . [He] is the type of person who will eat someone to survive if it comes to that.’” There’s Yonni Barrios who has both a wife and a mistress waiting for him, and whose personal life becomes fodder for tabloid news. Dario Segovia is remembered through the actions of his older sister, Maria Segovia, who raised him and takes charge of the families’ camp. Victor Segovia keeps a diary and takes note of the noises coming from the guts of the men whose bodies are trying to digest food that isn’t there. Jose Henriquez is known as the ‘pastor,’ and daily leads the group in prayer. Edison Pena, aka Rambo, is battling depression and mental illness. And finally there is Alex Vega, whose family wrote a song about how he would survive and be returned from the bowels of the earth.
When the men know that rescuers are finally coming, their tension doesn’t ease. They argue. A fist fight breaks out for the first time. They talk a lot about how they will be rich and famous once they get out. They imagine what they will do with their money. And once they really are out, life isn’t so easy. They are hailed as heroes, but they are ordinary men and unused to the limelight. Though they are physically and emotionally exhausted, they are hustled from one place to the next in various parts of the world. Famous people want to be seen with them. And this is often all too much.
For the reader, the rescue of the thirty-three seems nothing less than miraculous. Yet all of their suffering is very real in its physical and emotional toll. The spiritual moments are eclipsed by the real-world pressures. And this adventure is fascinating for the reader, who, though she knows the outcome of the rescue efforts, still holds her breath for the psychic safety of the miners.
High school housekeeping: A good high school reader will be deeply engaged by Deep Down Dark. While it covers a lot of ground, it’s not overly long—about 300 pages. You may regret that there are no maps or photos to help you visualize where in the mine the men are located or how the engineers drilled through the earth and found them. I recommend pairing this book with the very short, very easy to read Trapped by Marc Aronson. Trapped doesn’t tell the story of individual miners. What it does is show you all of the pathways into the mine—the places that were supposed to be escape routes and how far they were from the actual existing tunnels. It also includes photos of the pod used to remove the men, one at a time. It discusses how the engineers found these living needles in the underground haystack.
I’m a fan of Hector Tobar’s, partly because as a journalist for the LA Times, he was kind to school librarians, taking up their cause when their ranks were being decimated during the financial meltdown of 2008 and beyond. I haven’t reviewed any of his fiction for high school students. I should rethink that—I bet you’d like his most recent novel Barbarian Nurseries.