Human interest story of the year plays out in northern Chile

Life at the San José mine has been drawn out over a long 56 days. The ordeal of the 33 trapped miners, which has caught the attention of so many foreign editors around the world, is in reality a daily drudgery, only livened by flurries of activity when fresh news or deliveries of rescue equipment arrive at the site.

Press coordinator Cristian Cornejo estimates the number of international media currently at the site at around 60. This number is expected to swell to more than 1,000 when the official rescue date is given. There have reportedly been a series of accidents involving journalists speeding back and forth in 4x4s between the mine and Copiapó.

As journalists fight over the scraps of real-time information they are given from the mine, the families waiting at the fringes have become the main focus for news. But the information machine is running dry, and the camp has become a whirlwind of rumor, regurgitated information and make-believe, which journalists and families share alike.

Mothers and wives who have put their lives on hold, some even sacrificing their jobs to stay on the boulder-strewn mountainside, are having to cope with new pressures quite apart from their exhaustion and fears.

A group of women sit beneath a makeshift shelter that has a good view of the mine late into the night. They can tell by the rhythm of activity how the rescue operation is progressing. Every 40 minutes, work stops as a new drill bit, 8 meters long, is winched up into the rig.

“We’re keeping watch on the machines,” said Maria Luz, whose brother Herrera Campos was trapped in the mine when it collapsed nearly two months ago. “We only get worried when [the drilling] stops. Everyone gets worried then; the kids go quiet, we go quiet, everyone goes quiet.”

Their desperation leads to speculation and rumor. Distrustful of the information they are given by the rescue workers, the women have devised a scheme to count the number of lulls and therefore predict the depth reached by the drills.

All else failing, they rely on information passed on by connections “on the inside.” When the miners were discovered alive, the women say, there was a nine-hour delay between the miners’ note being discovered and President Sebastián Piñera brandishing it before cameras. They received the news when one rescue worker ran out shouting it.

Families connect to Wi-Fi that has been installed around the camp and gather around laptops scanning the day’s yield of news articles. They laugh and talk about the other women camping a few tents away from their own who have appeared in tabloids that chart Jerry Springeresque, affairs and disputes over money at the entrance.

“I have read almost everything. A lot of it is pure fiction. Some of the things written about my husband have nothing to do with reality,” said Caroline Lobos. “They said he was fired from his last job and then he came here to work, and that is not true. He quit his job and he came here to work. My father was working in the other company.”

The families above ground are not the only ones affected. “Of course it causes issues,” says Carola Narvaez, wife of Raul Bustos, one of the trapped miners. As the miners belowground also watch the news, some families appear more frequently than others, causing tensions which could never have been predicted by psychologists.

A half dozen documentaries are already in production — including the BBC’s Panorama, Discovery Channel’s look at the mechanics of the rescue, and a planned HBO program. Tabloids are reaching out to families, offering thousands of dollars for the first interview.

“We just want it to all to end, so we can go home,” says an exhausted looking Liliana Ramirez, wife of Mario Gomez, the oldest of the trapped miners. She knows that when they do go home, the ordeal may be far from over. “I’m going to need a lot of energy when he gets out, because they’re going to want to follow us everywhere.”

The miners are already being prepared by psychologists on how to cope with the media attention on their escape, and will now be focusing to prepare for the rescue attempt, which has been called “D-Day.”

By Patrick Bodenham

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