Magazine article The Spectator

Rich Seam

Magazine article The Spectator

Rich Seam

Article excerpt

Angus Macqueen is a film-maker whose CV includes The Death of Yugoslavia, Gulag, Cocaine and a slightly odd period commissioning the likes of The Secret Millionaire as Channel 4's head of documentaries. These days, happily, he's back making his own stuff - and BBC2's Chilean Miners: 17 Days Buried Alive was another gem. Commentary was kept to a minimum and the reconstructions were nicely restrained, leaving the heart of Friday's programme filled by gripping interviews with six of the miners themselves.

These proved to be a varied lot, from Mario 'Perry' Sepulveda, a family-loving Jehovah's Witness, to Samuel Avalos, a cheerfully foul-mouthed former street-kid, who praised mining as the best way to sweat off a hangover. Between them, the six did a superb job of making the unimaginable imaginable.

The day of 5 August 2010 duly began with Samuel feeling 'crap' as the men drove the mile underground to their work. But then, 'this deep rumble began' - and when it finished they were buried under earth and rocks weighing approximately the same as the Empire State Building. 'I prayed to God to let me live to bring up my son, ' said Perry.

'I told myself "I'm fucked", ' said Samuel.

In some ways, the first five days were the worst of all. The survivors made their way to the emergency bunker where they discovered that the mining company had skimped on such legal obligations as well-maintained escape shafts or enough food for two days.

And at this stage, of course, they had no idea whether anybody was trying to rescue them. (Perhaps not helpfully, many of them remembered a similar collapse at a Mexican mine, where the authorities snapped into action by placing a large commemorative cross at the entrance and driving off. ) In this 'silence from hell', Victor Zamora wrote two letters to his family, wrapping them in a plastic bag, so 'if I didn't get out, my rotting body wouldn't affect the paper'.

On day six, though, came the sound of a distant drill. Now all the men had to cope with was two weeks of alternating hope and despair, together with a starvation diet.

(They might have been found quicker if the company had been able to supply proper maps of the mine. ) Perry proudly explained his duties as the cook: to mix precisely equal teaspoons of tuna with water and serve - every two days. The bunker, Samuel added, 'was fucking boiling and the air was shit'. …

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