I’m too famous to find work in the mines

The Chilean coal miners that were trapped 700 meters underground for 70 days, talk to Ellie Ismailidou about the experience that changed their lives – in ways they never could have imagined. 

by Ellie Ismailidou

"Hold onto my card in case you ever need anything,” says Richard Villarroel , passing me a rectangular piece of paper with the words "Richard Villarroel – Coal Miner, number 28" stamped above his contact information and a small photograph capturing one of the moments of the thirty three miners’ rescue operation last October. He hands me the card with an official air before breaking into laughter at the look of surprise on my face. “What can we do?” he asks, “the media won’t leave us alone, so we’ve been adjusting as best we can.

From the bowells of the earth to the Acropolis: Richard Villaroel 
 with his wife, Dana, and their five month old son, Richard Junior,
 who was born just days after the rescue
Our interview takes place at the Acropolis Museum, where 25 of the 33 Chilean coal miners invited by the Greek minister of culture, Paulos Geroulanou, are present. In a few hours they will be off to Crete where the Greek mining company ELMIN will make good on the promise they made to the miners while they were still trapped underground: an all-expenses-paid vacation on the Greek islands.

A little before finally meeting the men who had been imprisoned 700 meters underground for 70 days I consider hundreds of possible questions that I would like to ask them. Have they managed to overcome the horror of their ordeal? How has the publicity affected them? Will they ever dare venture into another mine?

The day we meet is filled with surprises. A few minutes of conversation is all it takes to destroy my preconceived notions and break down the stereotypes that one associates with the survivors of a tragedy. The coal miners are animated and immediately start poking fun at the journalists; they sing songs, and send messages to the Greek people, telling them to never lose faith as they proclaim their belief in god and express their impatience to get back underground.

“I’m too famous to find work”

"Nobody will hire me because I'm too famous," says Florencio Avalos, 
the first of the 33 miners who saw the light of day.
Florencio Avalos was the first miner to see daylight again. His mission was to test the “phoenix”, the specially engineered elevator designed by NASA and the Chilean Navy to extract the miners from the bowels of the earth.

When asked whether he was scared, being the first person to put the equipment to the actual test, Avalos responds that he didn’t feel a thing. “I was completely numb, the only thing I hoped for was that everything would work well enough for all my comrades to come up behind me. I often think back at those 70 days and am amazed by the presence of mind and sense of serenity that we all shared. We could have broken down in a million different ways, and yet, we managed to keep our wits about us and stayed united. The hand of God was leading us,he recounts.

He kept fear at bay because, in his own words, the mine is “in his blood” and he can’t wait to be working as a coal miner again. There’s just one little problem: “Nobody will hire me because I’m one of the 33 trapped miners. Everyone is afraid that if anything happens in the mine, an accident or an injury, the event will be highly publicized because of my presence. The events are still very fresh in everyone’s minds, which is why the companies are avoiding us. As time goes on I’m sure that I will return to the mine. I was born to be a miner, it’s in my blood, he concludes, adding that for the time being he has been working in construction.

He advises the Greek people not to lose faith in the face of the economic downturn – neither in themselves or in their neighbors. “During difficult times a lot of selfish behavior is displayed. We need to trust in our fellow human beings despite it all. When I’m in the mine I know that I can’t get out alone, if I want to be saved I need to rely on others; the same is true in life. That’s what all people need to keep in mind, especially during hard times, Avalos concludes.

"Not everybody is that lucky" 

The 33 coal miners' leader, Luis Orzua visiting Athens with his 23-year-old son.

In contrast to the conversations with his lighthearted colleagues, Luis Orzua adopts a more serious tone. As the leader of the coal miners it was Mr. Orzua who took on the responsibility of keeping the group’s spirits up and organizing them during their confinement; he was also the last man to surface from the depths of the shaft.  He knows that even though his group of thirty three was lucky, hundreds of other coal miners are injured or killed every year all over the world.

“Legal changes need to be made, not just in Chile, but all over the world. It’s a long process, but reform is essential. Most people just don’t understand what mining really entails. Mining operations are profitable, but the working conditions of the miners remain harsh. There are many cases of illness, injury and multiple other dangers the miners face daily, says Orzua, who is is visiting Greece accompanied by his 23 year old son.

Orzua reminisces about those 70 days underground, recalling that he never allowed himself the luxury of breaking down. That’s what it means to be a leader. The rest of the group can let their disappointment show, they can be afraid, or back down. The leader has to keep up morale.” Where did he turn to find strength? “I turned to God. Life throws challenges our way every day, we find ways to push past our limits and become better people in the process. The power of faith and prayer, and the support of the people around us made us persevere, even when we felt that we couldn’t go on any longer.

Jorge Galleguilos, the eleventh miner to emerge from the 'phoenix' 
receives a gift from Greek minister of culture, Paulos Geroulanos
“The media is hounding us

Richard Villarroel, the coal miner who went so far as to make up a personal business card, wasn’t always so comfortable dealing with the media. Before we had a chance to register the light of day, we were blinded by the bright lights of publicity. We emerged exhausted and dizzy from our ordeal and before we could even figure out what was happening our phones were ringing off the hook day and night. No sooner had I changed my phone number, than they found the new one!” he says.

He came to Greece with his wife, Dana, and their five-month-old son, Richard Junior. The little boy was born just days after the rescue! “My worst fear was that I was never going to see my son. I made Dana promise not to come out to the mine in the desert. I was afraid that the unstable and stressful situation would harm her and the baby. I can’t tell you how happy I am to hold my son in my arms,” he tells me, never letting the baby leave his grasp.

Ellie Ismailidou, published June 1st, 2010, ‘To Vima’ online edition
Photos: George Oikonomopoulos/To Vima
See original story in Greek here