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33 Men by Jonathan Franklin

26 May

33 MenNormally, I’m not one for books about terrible tragedies or stories that have been unremittingly covered by the press.  At the end of a news cycle, most stories have been dissected to death, and I feel little need to learn what tiny details did not make it into the reports.  The saga of the 33 miners trapped in a Chilean mine was dramatic and drawn out, a sure recipe for desensitization via media, and yet – I am still utterly fascinated by it.

While reading the coverage of the rescue attempt, my mind kept going back to the 17 days these men spent at the bottom of a mine before the first drill broke through.  I get claustrophobic just thinking about it.  It’s so hard to imagine being trapped down there, with no way to communicate and the bare minimum of resources.  The fact that they were able to ration their food so carefully and keep some semblance of order is astounding.  But what were those first days like, down there in the darkest depths of a dangerous mine?

Franklin’s book sheds some light on these previously unpublished details, following the incident from the cave-in through the impressive rescue 69 days later.  An American journalist living in Chile for the past two decades, Franklin was granted a Rescue Pass, giving him unprecedented access to the rescue operation and, eventually, the miners themselves.  His account follows the action above and below the ground as both sides struggled to prevent a tragic outcome.  The book is a testament to the strong survival instinct and solidarity displayed under the greatest pressure, as well as the technical capabilities and dedication of rescuers who arrived from across the globe.

My only critique of this book is that it was written hastily, with less than four months lapsed between the successful rescue and its publication.  The prose itself is quite readable, laying out a detailed time line of events.  What makes it feel pieced together is the amount of information that is repeated unnecessarily.  Every page mentions at least once the depth of the refuge shelter where the miners gathered after the collapse: 700 meters, 2300 feet, or about half a mile.  Sometimes these numbers are mentioned more than once in the same paragraph.  Other statistics are similarly repeated: 33 men, alone for 17 days, rescued after 69 days.  Some anecdotes about the dangerous working conditions are told multiple times through the course of the book.  If this wasn’t such a rush job, this constant redundancy could have been eliminated.

However, I must say: the story itself is as compelling as they get, and well-told.  Although Franklin does mention the more sensational aspects of the story, like the possibility of cannibalism to fend off starvation, drugs smuggled to the miners via family members, and homosexual activity between men trapped for 10 weeks, these are not the crux of this tale.  (To be clear, nobody ate anybody, some drugs probably did make it down there, and the miners deny any homosexual encounters, which is good enough for me.)  The real story here is in the quiet courage of men who took a job in a dangerous work environment because it paid better than safer mines and was therefore the best way to support their families.  The tireless efforts of hundreds of rescuers who worked around the clock to save men they had never met might not be as lurid and entertaining as all those speculations, but to me, it’s what makes this such a great story.  It renews my faith in the strength of the human spirit and all the possibilities that can be achieved when we set aside our differences and work toward a common goal.

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