A year later, Chile's '33' are mostly unemployed

August 3, 2011 - 4:45 PM
Chile Mine Rescue

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2010 file image released by the Navy of Chile via La Tercera newspaper on Oct. 16, 2010, trapped miners wait their turn to be rescued inside the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile. One of the myths surrounding the 33 miners who survived 69 days, 700 feet deep, and whose unprecedented and dramatic rescue was beamed to millions around the world, is that they are millionaires and do not need work. A year after the tragedy, nearly half are unemployed, one lives the fame that began to take shape at the bottom of the mine, many have chosen to give motivational talks to make a living and four returned to work in the mines. (AP Photo/Armada de Chile, via La Tercera) CHILE OUT - NO USAR EN CHILE

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — One of the myths surrounding the 33 miners who were so dramatically rescued after being trapped for 69 days deep inside a Chilean copper mine is that they're all millionaires and no longer need to work.

The truth: nearly half the men have been unemployed since their mine collapsed one year ago Friday, and just one, the flamboyant Mario Sepulveda, has managed to live well off the fame. Most have signed up to give motivational speeches. Four, so far, have gone back underground to pound rock for a living.

"Los 33" have filed negligence lawsuits demanding $10 million from the bankrupt mine's owners and $17 million from the government for failing to enforce safety regulations, but years remain before any payout.

Despite rumors that miners got rich off media interviews, most got only paid trips, hotel stays and the kinds of gifts that don't put food on tables.

Neither did they profit from the books written about them so far. Only recently did they finally reach a deal with a Hollywood agent for an authorized book and movie, but they have yet to see any money from that, either.

A year after they were buried alive by a mine collapse a half-mile below the surface, the remarkable unity that many credited with helping them survive has fallen victim to misunderstandings over fame and money. Only some plan to join Chile's president, Sebastian Pinera, in Copiapo and at the San Jose Mine on Friday for an anniversary mass and museum inauguration. Sepulveda is among those who want no part of the ceremonies.

All have been hoping that Pinera announce lifelong pensions of about $430 a month for the 33. The government seems willing to pay, but the exact amount has been under negotiation for some time now, several miners told The Associated Press.

Many have gotten by until now on the philanthropy of an eccentric millionaire and Chilean mine owner, Leonardo Farkas, who wrote them checks for 5 million pesos (about $10,950), threw them a lavish party and gave each a motorcycle. Farkas then doubled the amount for a miner whose baby was born while he was trapped down below, and another who skipped his baby's birth to attend the party.

Shift foreman Luis Urzua, who kept the men unified when nearly all hope was lost, told the AP that he's saddened by critics of the miners' lawsuits, who say they should simply be grateful they were rescued.

"We're very content, very grateful to the government and the president for what they did. We filed this lawsuit so that people understand that everyone has the right to sue when things aren't being done correctly," Urzua said.

Many Chileans don't distinguish between government agencies and the administration of Pinera, which spent as much as $20 million on the rescue only to see his approval ratings drop from 60 percent at their peak to 30 percent today, the lowest of any Chilean president since the nation recovered its democracy in 1990, according to Adimark's monthly tracking poll.

Housewife Cecilia Cruz, for example, told the AP that "the miners are a bunch of ingrates, after all the money the government spent rescuing them."

Pinera has been beset by striking miners, students, teachers, earthquake and tsunami survivors, Mapuche Indians and others marching against his government. While in Copiapo on Friday, he'll also likely face the 240 other San Jose Mine workers who escaped the collapse only to lose their jobs when the mine closed. Many are still unemployed and have only received 40 percent of their severances.

The government has resisted calls to make payments on behalf of the bankrupt mining company, fearful of a precedent that could sap profits from the entire industry, Chile's main revenue source. But the state-owned National Mining Company did lend $1.2 million this week to pay the mine owners' debts to the workers.

Only 19 of the 33 rescued men would see some of this money — the others won't get anything because they worked for outside contractors, or have had most of their salaries paid by the state while on medical leave.

Urzua is among the unemployed. Rather than return to mining, he's among the 25 miners who have signed up to give motivational speeches, and credited a university professor, Ricardo Munoz, for helping them polish their deliveries. "He's one of the few who is working with us without trying to profit from it," Urzua said. "There are a lot of people who have made off handsomely."

The miners were celebrated as heroes worldwide for surviving so long in the dark, hot, wet depths of a mountain weakened by more than a century of mining, with tons of rock above them that was constantly shifting and threatening to bury them forever. Before anyone knew that they had survived the Aug. 15, 2010 collapse, the 33 stretched an extremely meager store of emergency food for 17 days, eating tiny capfuls of tuna fish and sips of outdated milk.

Pinera staked his presidency on their rescue. He formed an expert team and rushed to the scene, offering any resources necessary to bring them out alive. When they were finally pulled out, the world's media converged on the remote desert hilltop, broadcasting Chile's success story to a global audience hungry for good news.

The 33 were deluged with invitations to all-expenses-paid television appearances and vacations to exotic destinations. A few still travel to tell their stories.

But most have run out of money and are back to scratching out livings in the dusty, barren, working-class neighborhoods and shantytowns that ring the desert city of Copiapo.

The El Mercurio newspaper reported that 15 are unemployed; seven regularly give motivational speeches; three hawk fruit and vegetables in the street, two have small grocery stores and four have returned underground to pound rock for copper and gold. Others are unable to work due to continuing psychological symptoms, and receive a fraction of their former salaries as government medical payments.

Two — Claudio Yanez and Pedro Cortez — said they've had to sell their motorcycles for food. Franklin Lobos, who had tasted fame earlier in life as a professional football player, is coaching in the city's youth leagues, but told Chile's Football Channel he would prefer the anonymity of his life as a mine driver.

Bolivian Carlos Mamami, the only foreigner among the 33, is out of money after his father-in-law tried to charge $33,000 per interview. Edison Pena, who ran in the New York marathon, appeared on U.S. talk shows and is known for his love of Elvis Presley, recently was invited to sing like his idol in Canada, but he confessed to El Mercurio that it has been hard to keep the celebrity-worship going. His wife told the paper that their life "is as dark as the mine was."

Omar Reygadas, 56, told The AP he's focusing on motivational speeches for now, "to show the meaning of teamwork, power and faith."

But he said nightmares still keep him up. "I try to read, to tire myself out so that I can sleep well," he said. "But if I'm alone in a closed space, it still makes me anxious — I have to get out and find someone to talk with or distract myself with something."

Sepulveda stood out among the miners by narrating their underground videos, and thrilled viewers worldwide with his ecstatic behavior when he reached the surface. Since then, he has formed a business consulting service, hired a U.S. public relations agent, and filled his calendar with trips around Chile and beyond.

Sepulveda traveled to Washington D.C. with Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno for Wednesday's inauguration of a display about the rescue at the Smithsonian Institution.

He used the opportunity to defend the miners' lawsuits.

"Things should be done properly. If a worker commits a error of this calamity, the company isn't going to think twice" about finding those responsible, Sepulveda said.

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Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington D.C. contributed to this report.

Eva Vergara can be reached at http://twitter.com/evergaraap