Poverty, trauma and illness stalk the men rescued from the San Jose mine collapse.

When the San Jose copper mine collapsed on August 5 last year, the 33 men trapped underground were convinced that they would slowly starve to death. But two months later, a drill broke through to their refuge 700 metres below ground, and, after a painstaking rescue operation, they were eventually hauled to the surface before television cameras from around the world.

For a brief, glorious, moment, “Los 33” became a symbol of unity and faith, their rescue an almost unbelievable parable of survival against the odds. The men became superstars: they were cheered by 75,000 football fans at Wembley and invited on all-expenses-paid trips to Disneyland, Israel and Greece.

One year after the cave-in, however, most have been returned to poverty, and some are even worse off than before the disaster. Several are struggling with the psychological and physical trauma of their ordeal, and all are struggling with the mixed blessings brought by instant — and unsought — fame.

“We were like rock stars. People climbed trees to see us,” said Samuel Avalos, who had only been working at the mine for a few months before the collapse, and has now returned to selling pirate CDs on the street.

After the rescue, all 33 received free motorbikes from the Kawasaki corporation, and around $15,000 from Chilean businessman Leonardo Farkas, but the money has long since run out. Mr. Avalos's only regular income is a $500 monthly medical leave cheque, less than half his salary at the mine. “Will you buy my motorbike?” he asks, mid-interview. “Or I have a flag signed by all 33 miners. How much is that worth?” Another miner, Osman Araya used part of his $15,000 to buy a van and now sells vegetables in Copiapo market. Dario Segovia, a former drill operator, sells fruit in the same market. Mr. Araya was recently critical of his fellow miners and launched a deliberate call for help when he told Chilean newspaper La Tercera, that “all is not well with the 33”.

Many have psychological and medical problems, said Dr. Jean Romagnoli, a lead doctor in the rescue operation.

“They are taking uppers, downers, stabilisers, I think they are over prescribed ... They don't understand why they are taking them but they are fed up with pills,” he said. “It is not pills they need, but the tools to deal with fame and the tools to renovate themselves.” Psychological treatment has been coordinated by the government and a private health insurance company, but many miners find the treatment insufficient, and family members say they ought to be included in the sessions.

A handful of the miners — including the gregarious Mario Sepulveda, who acted as the miners' spokesmen in videos they recorded underground — have built careers giving speeches and public appearances, but most are suffering from financial and psychological problems. “They are about to hit very, very hard times,” said Dr. Romagnoli, who is in close contact with many of them. “They do not know how they are going to get through the next month.” Yonni Barrios, the miner who served as a doctor to his companions — and gained notoriety when both his wife and lover showed up at the rescue — now has silicosis, an irreversible lung disease.

Last month, producer Mike Medavoy announced that he had bought the rights to their story. The deal's details have not been released, but filming is expected to begin in 2012.

Mr. Medavoy has said he will focus on just a few of the 33 men, but a contract that the miners signed with their lawyers last December stipulates that they will all share certain revenues — including any authorised book, movie or collective testimony.

Meanwhile, the men are hoping to receive settlements from two lawsuits: one against the government for allowing the unsafe mine to remain open after years of warnings, and one against the mine owners. They are seeking $541,000 each from the government and an undetermined amount from the company.

When the news broke last month that the miners planned to sue the same government that had organised the estimated $11-million rescue operation, they were denounced as money grabbers. They shot back that they only had to be rescued because the mine was so outdated, with unsafe working conditions long recognised by the government.

That argument has been echoed by local politicians such as Brunilda Gonzalez, mayor of Caldera, who said the government was still not paying enough attention to safety regulations. She has promised to boycott a commemorative ceremony organised by President Sebastian Pinera on August 5 in Copiapo.

“We as a municipality are not going to participate because this is all a media and political show,” she said. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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