COPIAPO, Chile (Reuters) - Feted as superstars after surviving months trapped deep in the earth’s bowels, Chile’s 33 rescued miners are fighting ghosts and hardships a year on -- and some are struggling to adjust to life back on the surface.
Harrowed by an ordeal they thought would kill them, the miners emerged into the spotlight after a daring televised rescue that captivated the world, and several are still being treated for trauma.
Irritable, unable to sleep, anxious and angry, their families say some of the miners are changed men after spending 69 days in a hot, humid tunnel, and left parts of themselves back down in the mine.
When Reuters met an exhausted Mario Gomez, at 64 the oldest of the miners now, after his rescue last year, all he wanted to do was sleep. Now he fears his subconscious and has trouble staying asleep.
“You don’t want them to be there, but the memories remain and that’s where the nightmares, the headaches come from,” Gomez said as he drove through deserted streets to his humble home in the northern city of Copiapo, Cumbia music throbbing on the car radio. “It’s a strange sensation in my legs that makes we want to get up and run off, a kind of desperation.”
Gomez, who is now retired but who acted as a spiritual leader down in the mine, is still in therapy, and can only sleep two hours at a time. He wakes up every morning at 3 a.m.
“I think a lot of the 33 have this problem,” he said, wrapped up in a thick jacket against the biting Southern Hemisphere winter chill. “Many say they are fine, but they don’t seem it. It will take a long time to get over it ... the trauma we suffered was too great.”
Gomez and his companions survived on dwindling rations of food and water for 17 days until rescue crews finally located them against all odds by drilling a tiny hole down through 2,050 feet of thick rock.
Experts compared the rescue to finding a needle in a haystack. Many of the miners have still not come to terms with it.
“I‘m in a bad way, I‘m in a bad way. What did you expect?” blurted Edison Pena, who ran six miles a day down in the mine’s tunnels while trapped and later visited the United States where he crooned Elvis Presley hits on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” He ran the New York Marathon and was honored at Graceland, Elvis’s mansion in Memphis, Tennessee.
Pena broke down at one public meeting Reuters attended in the days following the rescue, crying, screaming the miners had not chosen their ordeal and encouraging children to take up running.
Many of the miners and their families had hoped their newfound fame would bring fortune and mean they’d never have to work again. But while a film and a book are in the works, and several miners have made money from interviews, endorsements and public speeches, many say they haven’t profited.
Some residents in Copiapo are disgusted with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit the miners have brought against the state that saved them.
Gone are the ribbons and flags and chanting masses that greeted the miners in Copiapo after their rescue. Even a commemoration service attended by President Sebastian Pinera in Copiapo on Friday was low-key.
While the rescue gave Pinera a ratings boost last year, he is now grappling with violent protests against his policies, and these escalated on Thursday -- the same day a poll said he was the most unpopular leader in the two decades since Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Some people protested during the ceremony and heckled him as the miners presented him with a gift.
Instead, the miners face the harsh reality of finding another way to make a living and say people’s claims they’ve become rich are a myth.
Miners Dario Segovia and Osman Araya took money given to them by an eccentric pop star-turned-iron mine magnate and have invested in a fruit and vegetable stand they now tend in Copiapo with their families.
“I‘m just a miner who had a misfortune and have had a really rough time. There’s no money, I don’t have any. What I do have is a will to work,” Segovia said at his home of wood, cement and corrugated iron sheets, strewn with bags of vegetables.
Editing by Simon Gardner and Eric Walsh