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Author to share story of miraculous mine recovery for Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series

| Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
Author Hector Tobar
Patrice Normand | Opale
Author Hector Tobar
'Deep Down Dark' by Hector Tobar
'Deep Down Dark' by Hector Tobar

On Aug. 5, 2010, Mario Sepulveda missed the minibus to his job at the San Jose Mine near Copiapo, Chile. He thought about going home, but another minibus driver stopped and took Sepulveda to work.

Truck driver Mario Gomez was going to lunch but decided to take another trip into the mine to pick up a load of gold- and copper-laden rock because he needed the money — 40,000 Chilean pesos, a mere $9.

Carlos Pinilla, the general manager of the San Jose Mine, asked a few men concerned with conditions in the mine if they were cowards. Pinilla, after inspecting a section of the mine, drove to the surface.

Sepulveda and Gomez would be trapped in the San Jose Mine for 69 days when it collapsed because they did their jobs; Pinilla, who shirked his duties, escaped.

“To me, it's a metaphor for of what living life is like,” says Hector Tobar, the author of “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). “You work very hard on something, and you make decisions in your life, and then little things can turn and change your fate.”

Tobar will speak Sept. 21 at Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Literary Evenings.

The San Esteban Mining Co., which owned the mine, was cited 42 times for safety violations from 2004 to '10. There were eight deaths at the mine over a 12-year period. The men knew they were working at a dangerous job site but still went to work.

“All of these men shared a desire to get ahead,” says Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist from Los Angeles. “They wanted to make a little bit more money and were willing to take risks to do so. They shared the notion they would take that risk, but, of course, not everyone who worked at that mine was trapped.”

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, most of the men were confident they would soon be rescued. But as time passed and they recognized the enormity of the collapse, they started to examine their lives.

Some thought the number of men trapped — 33, the age of Jesus Christ when he was crucified — was a good portent, a sign they would be saved.

The number would take on increased significance as time elapsed. The men were rescued Oct. 13, 2010 — 10/1 310 — which adds up to 33. There were 33 days of drilling before the men were freed.

While the word “miracle” couldn't be worked into book's title, the miners viewed their rescue as nothing less than miraculous.

“I think that the number 33 is a very powerful number,” Tobar says, “but beyond a few coincidences, I think the faith they felt and their beliefs were a direct result of the love they had for each other, for their families and for their country.”

The miners were hailed as heroes after their rescue and honored at Disney World in Florida and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Israel. They were given iPads, sunglasses and motorcycles.

But because they had made a pact to tell their story together — via “Deep Down Dark” — the Chilean media started to turn on them when they wouldn't grant interviews. It was noted that the cost of the rescue to the government was an estimated $20 million while the miners were accumulating gifts and taking trips. People in Chile started to turn on the miners, never mind that they didn't ask to be buried in a mine.

Tobar views the story as comparable to a biblical parable, with elements of greed and self-destruction (of the mining company) cast in contrast to the miner's fortitude, faith and community.

“It's a very multilayered story, and I had 33 subjects,” Tobar says. “Each one of them transported me to a different part of that story.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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