Rescued miners' secrecy pact erodes in spotlight

Family members of the 33 miners who were trapped for 69 days had said a special Mass on Sunday would be a chance for the miners to find closure and understanding.

As one of them, Omar Reygadas, 56, left the service and walked with his family to the tent where they had lived while the men were trapped, cameramen and photographers surrounded him. His 2-year-old great-granddaughter was pushed in the mob and began to cry. As Mr. Reygadas picked her up, cameramen moved closer, zooming in.

Wearing a ball cap and sunglasses, Mr. Reygadas remained calm in the media glare, but he revealed little of what the world had been waiting to hear: the miners' own stories about life in their subterranean prison.

"I've had nightmares these days," Mr. Reygadas said from the cramped tent, as reporters jostled for space. "But the worst nightmare is all of you."

Saying they had signed a pact not to reveal details about their ordeal, the miners have said little since Wednesday's rescue. But many have made clear that the bidding had begun for their personal accounts, reflecting the complexity behind a feel-good story of hope and perseverance that was always encumbered by the economic challenges faced by Chile's miners.

On Saturday, in an area of squatter homes in the Juan Pablo Segundo slum of Copiapó, a city about an hour from the mine, reporters milled in front of the home of Carlos Mamani, 24, a Bolivian.

Verónica Quispe, his wife, said they were charging for interviews, even with reporters from Bolivia, where Mr. Mamani is considered a national hero. She said they were traveling there this week to discuss a job offer Mr. Mamani received from President Evo Morales.

"We're poor — look at the place we live," Ms. Quispe said, squinting under the desert sun. "You live off our stories, so why can't we make money from this opportunity to feed our children?"

Miners have asked for as little as $40 and upward of $25,000 for interviews. Some media outlets have offered to fly miners to Japan, Germany or Italy for exclusives. Some reporters who spent weeks living in Camp Hope, the tent village that sprang up when families gravitated to the site, exchanged letters with miners underground and were asked for large sums for interviews once the miners were out.

On Friday night in Copiapó, reporters and photographers gathered outside the home of Florencio Ávalos, the first miner to be rescued. A man identifying himself as Mr. Ávalos's cousin told them that access was possible — for a price.

"We paid $500 for the interview," Ari Hirayama of Asahi Shimbun of Japan, said upon exiting the house. "And it felt like he was withholding details."

Jessica Chilla, the wife of Darío Segovia, was equally direct. "He is charging for interviews as compensation. He is physically and psychologically exhausted and will not recover for at least a month," she said.

She added, "He will not give interviews for free, not now or later."

As of Saturday Mr. Segovia had given two interviews, one for half an hour to a German television station for 500,000 pesos, about $1,040, and another to a Japanese media outlet for about $417.

Cash is king, Ms. Chilla said. The family is not asking for trips or other gifts because, she said, they have been promised so many already.

Even one miner, Marcos Aciares, who was supposed to have been part of the fateful shift on Aug. 5, has been cashing in. Mr. Aciares, 43, said he charged a Chilean television station 2 million pesos for an interview, or about $4,175.

Other miners at the San Esteban Mining Company, which shut down the San José Mine after the accident, have felt left behind. A few dozen protested on Sunday, demanding their severance payments. Not all the miners have refused to speak at all without payment.

A short walk from Mr. Mamani's home in a patchwork of slum housing, Susana Valenzuela, 52, the companion of one miner, Yonny Barrios, 50, had no problem speaking out.

"Just bring me a bottle of sidra!" she told an Argentine news crew, referring to a popular tipple in Argentina. The Argentines promptly dispatched a producer to purchase a bottle. Later, the soft-spoken Mr. Barrios appeared on his porch to say hello, under a sign reading, "I love you, my Tarzan."

"I lost hope several times," he said of the first 17 days before rescuers found the miners were all alive. "But I had God to speak with," he added. "I can't really say much more."

The oft-mentioned pact among the 33 men seems to be fraying. For instance, ABC News said it was preparing to broadcast an exclusive interview with Mario Sepúlveda, 40, who emerged from the mine ebullient and leading cheers among rescue workers. "ABC licensed material from the family," Alison Bridgman, a spokeswoman, said, disputing the idea that ABC had paid for the interview. Mr. Sepúlveda spoke to the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday because the newspaper had treated his family "with dignity and kindness," the article based on the interview said.

The 3,365-word article delved into the desperation the men felt during the first 17 days they were trapped.

"The batteries in our helmet lights faded and then they went out completely on Day Three," Mr. Sepúlveda said.

In the interview, he described his desperate search for a way out amid the rockfall. "I walked for hours," he said. "I found a ventilation shaft. It was a shaft that should have had a ladder in it. It did have a ladder so I started climbing."

But after a climb of about 150 feet, the ladder ended. The men were 2,060 feet below the surface.

The interview also touched on the crying fits some men had, the unsanitary conditions they endured, even the rumors that some had sexual relations with others underground, to which Mr. Sepúlveda replied, "No, nothing like that ever went on."

Other reports based on comments obtained from miners by Jonathan Franklin, who is writing a book about them, referred to fears of starvation and divisive conflict, including fistfights.

"We were waiting for death," a miner, Richard Villaroel, was quoted as saying by The Guardian of London.

Asked to describe the nature of the conflicts, Daniel Sanderson, a miner on the surface, said: "That's part of the pact."

(Published by NY Times - October 17, 2010)

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