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Published: Monday, 10/25/2010

Chilean miners painfully begin to describe ordeal

NEW YORK TIMES

COPIAPO, Chile - Jose 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 Pena, 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 gold and copper mine here were pulled from nearly half a mile underground.

While the world has begun to move on, the miners themselves are just starting to grapple with the enormousness of what happened to them.

Some details of the men's ordeal have slipped out as many news organizations vied for their attention.

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 mine collapsed, the time before they knew rescuers were still searching for them.

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

Mr. Reygadas, 56 - 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 same 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 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. The men began to search for their friends.

It would take eight hours before they knew no one had died.

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

This is where the narrative goes silent.

During the next two weeks, the 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 rescue.

After that, the men say, there were many more light moments, despite the uncertainties of an unprecedented rescue plan.

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.

Another miner, Vctor Segovia, 48, wrote a letter to his family detailing a nightmare he had.

In it, the men were trapped, but in an oven.

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.

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.

Since the rescue, some men reportedly have been drinking heavily and several have shown signs of emotional distress.

At a dinner in their honor on Tuesday, Mr. Pena, the runner, broke down when addressing reporters.

Fellow miner Mario Sepulveda grabbed him firmly by the shoulders and neck and whispered something in his ear, but Mr. Pena refused to leave the stage.

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

He was hospitalized the next day and has since been released.



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