The sound of rock cracking, of timbers snapping like celery stalks and the unmuted avalanche, concentrated into one sonic roar down the channel of the mine shaft, these were not recorded. Nor was any video taken of the men’s faces down below, their mustaches gaping over black-hole mouths, their eyes weak with horror. The other senses were not transmittable by anything but reporters’ words: “the smell of cooked stones, the feel of rock dust settling on your skin, the taste of copper.”
The first panicked calls from the mine head to the corporate office, and those from the corporate office to the capital, and those from the capital to the mine head, those were all logged by the company’s voice printer and became the first snippets of reportage on the mine collapse, on the twenty-seven men trapped in a chamber the size of an average condominium, sixteen hundred feet of stone between them and the light of day.
The first call from the ground supervisor was so halted with cursing and sobs and impromptu prayers that there was no particularly relevant excerpt to pluck, the information transmitted being less important, to the television audience at least, than the raw emotion of a man in disaster, in someplace far away where people were not protected from such things. How many. How many men were in the mine? “I don’t. There were. My God.” Is the crew alive? Listen. Pull yourself together. Are they alive? “Only God knows. Only God can know. They are dead, I’m sure. It was so loud.”
For fifteen days they were reported nationally as 27 probable dead, assumed, though the reporters did not put things so brashly, to have been crushed into ketchup. Twenty-seven closed casket funerals were planned and executed, delegates from the government attending each, their pictures in the paper with their hands on the shoulders of the family members, their saddest faces. The drill team worked perhaps even faster than they would have if survivors had been expected, eager to wrap up a hopeless search, to confirm the tragedy and no longer live and work in the midst of it.
On the fifteenth evening, a sign was seen: the faintest light issuing from the bottom of the bore hole, and the light itself seeming starving, ready to blink out of existence at a weak wind. The possibilities seemed limited to the two poles of extreme: 27 miners, healthy if worried, occupying themselves with games of poker; or, a floodlight attached to a car battery, shining on 27 crushed, starved, or asphyxiated corpses.
Would there be, the TV producers wondered, any footage suitable for public airwaves? You couldn’t very well broadcast clips of grisly human chutney, a Ken Burns effect panning from a severed hand to brain matter. At least, not without corporate approval.
Through a tube stuffed down the bore hole with a typed message asking their status, pulled back up by a cable winch, they achieved the next tenuous step: communication. “We are all alive,” returned the note in pencil, with a list of meager rations left over, a matter-of-fact closing prognosis: “It’s hot down here and we are hungry.”
“Don’t worry,” the surface effort sent down. “We will take care of you.” They stuffed tuna sandwiches into the tube and sent them down, one at a time, each taking an hour down and an hour back up, meanwhile starting to drill two more shafts, one just a little bigger than the first to transmit food, water, and other necessities to the miners, the other big enough to drag the miners themselves back up, one at a time, to the living world.
The estimate for the escape channel, which they sent down on a folded paper note, said “One to two months.” The miners simply added a question mark and sent it back: “One to two months?”
It was only after all of them were alive that the story went international. Twenty-seven dead miners reads only as tragedy, and twenty-seven live miners plays as a miracle, but twenty-seven miners hanging tenuously between the two was something the world would watch. Hope against fate. Humanity against the press of the natural world. Science against the odds. Great TV.
* * * * *
“You have to wonder,” Jasper Faulks reported from the Manhattan studio, “just how their spirits are holding up. They’ve been trapped now for sixteen days. They may be down there for another sixty. Now that their immediate needs have been met—we know how to get them food, water, and electricity. We’ve got some ventilation down there—how are we going to keep them mentally healthy?”
Fresh American Morning sent their field reporter to the site with a care package, carefully restricted to items that would fit down the relief shafts, with decks of cards, repackaged board games, two digital video players with recordings of World Cup soccer, not to mention photographs the field reported gathered from each miner’s family, Tubes of Hope, they called it, four of them. But these were not the first things the miners saw come down. First a cable drifted down through the first exploratory hole, an eel eyeing its way into the cavern. Then a tube came down with a small video camera, which the cable hooked into. They were live. There was even a digital display where Marco, the foreman, could see and hear Jasper so they could have a two-way conversation.
“We’ve brought you some things to do, some games, some reminders of the world waiting for you up here,” Jasper said. Marco, the foreman and unofficial press liaison, thanked them for their kindness. He and all the men behind them were shirtless, a reminder of the oppressive heat down there, their own bodies fueling a makeshift Dutch oven. “What’s the mood like down there?”
“More hope than you might expect. For a long time we didn’t think we would be found. Now we just miss our families.”
“I can relate,” Jasper said. “When I travel on business I always miss my family too. Marco, we’ve got to take a commercial break. We can chat more in a few minutes.”
When the feed was live again Jasper delved deeper into their mental states. Marco admitted that him, and some of his fellows as well, sometimes felt a claustrophobic sadness when they turned off the lights to sleep.
“I understand,” Jasper said. “Sometimes I get sad too.”
* * * * *
The next week Fresh American Morning sent a can of “something special” into the Stone Sanctum, as the story had been christened. They said it was a surprise for the miners, and it looked inconspicuous enough: just cylindrical can of nuts, a perfect fit down the chute. When Marco opened the can, a fake snake sprung out at him and he yelped in terror. Jasper had a good laugh.
“They don’t make those in the US anymore. When our field reporter found one in a local market, I just couldn’t resist.”
“Could you send down some real cashews, please,” Marco grumbled. “You got me all excited for nothing.”
“What if I told you this whole mine collapse was an episode of Candid Camera?”
“Cashews, please,” Marco said, and shut off the feed.
After being sent itch powder, onion flavored gum, and soot soap, the miners learned to inspect everything the morning show sent them. A few reused the prank items on each other, trying to catch their hijinks on video for the show. Others started saying that the show and even the rescue operation didn’t care about them, that they were all on their way to being skeletons in a stone box. Jasper Faulks asked if they would say that on
“You’ve stopped taking our practical jokes in stride,” Jasper said. “Did we go too far?”
“We’re a little grumpy. It’s an inappropriate time for these gags.”
“I apologize. It’s just that this story is so sad. I know it’s very hard for our viewers at home to watch, so we wanted to add a little levity.”
“We don’t need levity!” Marco shouted. “We need you to pull us out of this goddamn hole!”
For two days neither he nor any other miner would turn on the camera or talk to anyone from the show. When he did finally reappear on the screen, he said there was a problem. Juan had not slept in three days and was deteriorating physically and mentally.
His stomach was bloated even though he’d barely eaten, and his biceps were smaller than his wrists. They found him one morning trying to chew his way out of the cave.
“Send us some children’s books and sleeping pills,” Marco pleaded, looking ragged himself.
“Of course,” Jasper said. “This is hard on us too, though. In return, could you do something to lighten our day?”
“Like what?” Marco asked.
“I don’t know. A jig?”
* * * * *
By the next month, the miners had nearly perfected their jig, and the better they danced, the more food and water they were given. To some of the soloists, the surface world sent down perfectly cooked steaks and bouquets of roses. Juan’s condition, unfortunately, had not improved. They had forgotten to send down any sleeping pills, and the children’s books gave him terrible nightmares. He dreamed of friendly foxes gnawing his legs clean, of a family of gentle bears ripping his limbs off, and his screams echoed around the chamber. Some workers on the rescue effort above claimed they could hear him howling. He walked around with a constant string of drool dangling from his chin, and worse yet, two other miners were starting to exhibit similar symptoms. Marco had started locking all the pickaxes and power tools in a bunker at night to ensure Juan did not murder them all.
The miners played poker, betting with promises. I’ll wash your car when we get out of here. A seafood dinner for your whole family. On a good hand, nights of passion with one another’s wives. When poker became drudgery, they played war, the game of no skill, and the bets went higher: their houses, their daughters as slaves. No one wrote down the wagers, but you could see in a few of the men actual intent to call for their winnings when normal life returned.
“Talk to us about what it’s like down there.”
“It’s a small dark world. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. The light disappears into cracks and nooks in the rock. It’s like a prison cell. Like the waiting room for Hell. You look at your friends like enemies. You feel hunted all the time.”
“Everything you say just shoots into my heart.”
They played a game of Twister, negotiating six tins of ham for exclusive TV rights. “You’ll be celebrities when you get out,” Jasper said. “It may be worse. You may feel even more trapped.” The winner of the Twister tournament was granted a $1,000 honorarium, which he kept in his underpants and guarded furiously.
They watched more World Cup games. “While you’re watching World Cup, the world is watching you. They want to know when Diego is coming out of Twister retirement.” The miners took to arm wrestling and Juan swept every tournament, his insanity making his arm immovable. He seemed not to know that he was winning. Juan requested a rubber duck and his wish was granted.
Some of the miners, without even negotiation provisions in return, had started giving video diaries to the show. They professed love to their mistresses, their hidden debts to their families, old secret shames to no one in particular. The world listened to Frank confessing money he’d embezzled from his mother, to Jose’s unrepentant tales of his affairs with prostitutes. They were both bored and enthralled by Zeke’s detailed accounts of the ways he’d cheated on his taxes.
The world returned their affection. Women sent in pictures of themselves, proposed marriage. “You were the man I’d always known I’d love,” they said. “I’ve already left my dog of a husband.” The men negotiated hard for the more lascivious of the pictures, then took them to places the cave lights didn’t reach.
One woman, particularly beautiful, sent down a picture of herself wearing only her own hair, and promised to marry the champion and be a dutiful wife. “The champion of what?” the men wanted to know. “What is going on?” Marco asked. Jasper only offered a coy smile.
The next day, two sabers came down in the tube.