In Sunday’s “Descent Into the Depths” panel at the Texas Book Festival, journalists Neil Swidey and Hector Tobar explored how the survivors of two man-made disasters have fared on the other side.
Swidey is the author “Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness,” the story of five men who were sent to the end of the world’s longest tunnel under the ocean to do a nearly impossible job — and not all of them made it out alive.
“Every once in a while I come across a story that just stays with me. And that’s this story,” Swidey said. “This was a massive undertaking that was unnoticed.”
Tobar came to “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” in another way: After the Chilean miners were rescued, he was contacted. “Just before they were rescued, they realized that what they’d been through underground was special to them and that is was an was an epic story. So they decided they would all tell their story together, and they would share the royalty.”
Once he took the project on, he got to know all 33 men and was struck by how there were “many acts of heroism among them as well as betrayals.”
Swidey observed, “I always feel that we relate to people through moments of frailty, through moments of imperfection. You see imperfect people rise to the challenge.”
What both books have in common is the magnitude of what these men were confronted with. Swidey said, “I was trying to get this perspective of just how far away are they? These guys were almost 10 miles away from surface with no hope of getting back.” And what became apparent afterward was that “the three who survived had 30 seconds in which they all would have perished if they hadn’t acted in a certain way.”
While researching and writing the book, he said, “I never stopped feeling the tightening in my chest when reading or talking about just how cut off they were.”
Tobar said, “The San Jose mine was like a city that was underground, almost as far down as the tallest building on earth is tall. So far down, it’s hotter and hotter –– 98 degrees and 90 percent humidity. … It was almost like Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ ”
The ‘Inferno’ comparison is apt. “When they were about to be rescued, the mountain started rumbling again, and many of them thought it was the devil,” Tobar said.
Both authors commented on how faith pervades their books. Tobar talked about how the men gathered to pray when they realized they were trapped. “The men are faced with this moment of reckoning and they asked to be forgiven,” he said.
Swidey told the story of DJ. “There had been warning signs that the plan was not ready for prime time. DJ goes home and turns to his mother and asks if she has his grandpa’s medal, and she asks why. The rule is you don’t tell your family how dangerous your work is. DJ sees his mother’s face change. He needs some reassurance of that Virgin Mary medal his grandfather kept in his pocket.”
Surviving itself comes with its own costs. Swidey observed that the three survivors suffered from noncombat PTSD. “There’s a numbness that creates havoc in family relationships. Survivors’ guilt can be paralyzing,”.
In the end, Tobar said, “What I came to realize quickly is that these men went into the mines for love. That desire to go back to their families and support them is what kept them going. It’s eventually what healed them. My book is like the ‘Odyssey’ of Homer because it’s about someone wanting to get home. For me, that’s the main thing I took away from the book, the power of love and the heroism of the family.”