He is the undisputed star of the Chilean mine rescue. When Mario Sepulveda became the second miner to surface after 69 days trapped half-a-mile below ground, his cheeky gift of souvenir rocks for the Chilean
president combined with his wildly enthusiastic chants of ‘Viva Chile’ alongside his rescuers led to him being dubbed Super Mario on newspaper front pages around the world.
Since his rescue, the charismatic 40-year-old heavy-equipment operator has been deluged with lucrative media offers, including the chance to host his own Chilean TV show.
But yesterday Mario, speaking from his hospital bed before being released last night – leaving only one of the 33 in the care of doctors – spoke exclusively to The Mail on Sunday and revealed how his jaunty facade was hiding a man tormented by the ‘nightmare’ of what he and the others faced for the initial 17 days after they were trapped – fearing they would starve to death in their underground tomb.
Speaking for the first time about the ordeal, Mario broke the miners’ self-imposed ‘Pact of Silence’ to say: ‘There are certain things which need to be told. I want the world to know the truth about what we went through down there. …I feel it is my duty to tell what went on and the lessons to be learned.’
Mario, who ‘celebrated’ his 40th birthday on October 4 below ground, said he decided to tell The Mail on Sunday his story because he said The Mail treated his family – wife Elvira, 39, known to all as Katty, daughter Scarlette, 18, and 13-year-old son Francisco – ‘with dignity and kindness’.
This author first met the family shortly after the miners were located on August 22 when one of several bore holes finally made it into the 500sq ft refuge where they had been surviving in what Mario now calls ‘inhumane conditions’ since a rockfall blocked the mine on August 5.
Their discovery was revealed in images that were greeted with jubilation and disbelief around the world as president Sebastian Pinera held up a note the miners had attached to the drill head which read: ‘All 33 of us are alive inside the shelter.’ Mario now says that note was written when the men ‘had all but given up’.
‘By that stage we were not sure if anyone would ever come for us,’ he says, his voice cracking with emotion and his eyes filling with tears. ‘We heard nothing for 15 days and then for two days we heard drilling in the distance but it stopped.
‘We felt for sure that they had given up on us. Then the drilling started again and the roof of the tunnel began showering rocks and the drill came through. We started dancing around in pure joy. That was the highlight. But the 17 days before that moment were pure hell.’
As he sits on his hospital bed inside the Atacama clinic, with his black Oakley sunglasses pushed on to the top of his balding head, Mario frequently stops to cuddle his children, who are also visiting.
He cries as he tells his remarkable story of survival. He talks about being ‘on a roller coaster’ of emotions and says doctors are keeping him in hospital because they want him to rest. ‘I am finding it hard to sleep,’ he says. ‘I am so happy and yet when I think of what happened my emotions overwhelm me.’
Mario, whose mother died when he was an infant, dotes on his family. He met Katty – who is a secretary for accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers – and the pair wed in 1992.
An electrician by trade, he became a miner ten years ago to help support his growing family. He had worked in the San Jose gold and copper mine for three years, spending the week at the mine and weekends with his family in the Chilean capital Santiago, an hour’s flight south.
Mario says despite the mine having a poor safety record he was earning the equivalent of £1,000 a month, almost double the normal salary for a miner. ‘I didn’t like the mine but I figured I would work there to earn good money to give my kids what I didn’t have. Isn’t that what every parent wants?’
Recalling the day the nightmare began, Mario says August 5 was ‘just another regular day at the mine’. It was lunchtime and the men were gathering in a 20ft high cavern to catch the transport that would take them to the surface to eat. It was that twist of fate that saved their lives: had they been scattered throughout the mine many would certainly have perished.
Mario says: ‘I had ear plugs and headphones on because I had been driving a big excavator truck so I didn’t hear the mine roaring. But I saw the dust and debris.
‘A colleague came running through the cloud screaming, “Cave in!”
‘The dust was thick and heavy.’
I ask Mario if he was scared at that moment. ‘Scared? Not really,’ he says. ‘You have to remember the mine is my workplace. I knew the refuge was close by.’
Mario says his first instinct was to seek an escape route. ‘Some of the younger ones were in a bad way – hysterical – but I had to find a way out. The only thought that kept going through my head was that I didn’t want to die before my children had an education. It sounds like a crazy thought but that is so important to me.
‘I knew Katty would be OK. She’s a good-looking woman and could find another man. But what if that man didn’t like my kids?
‘I couldn’t face the thought of my kids being unhappy.’
He says he began walking around the subterranean tunnel system: ‘It was pitch black except for the lamp on my helmet. I kept walking and looking for a way out. I came to the rockfall and I knew there was no way through. I walked for hours. 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. The walls were soft and the rocks fell back in my face.’
He points to his left incisor tooth and wiggles it with his fingers. ‘The rocks struck me in the face and loosened my teeth. I was bleeding from my mouth but still I kept climbing. I had to get out.’
The flimsy ladder was made of leather and rope – used instead of metal because it wouldn’t rust. But Mario says: ‘It was in terrible condition. It had not been checked or maintained. And it ran out halfway up the shaft.’ He says after an agonising 150ft climb up the two-foot-wide shaft, the ladder ran out.
‘The ladder should have gone the whole way. I tried to climb without the ladder but the walls crumbled. I could not make it. I could see two big rocks up ahead that were blocking the shaft. That was a moment of utter despair. I came back down and had to tell the other guys there was no way out.’
Much has been written about how the men followed the lead of shift supervisor Luis Urzua, who was the last man to come out of the mine during last week’s dramatic rescue.
Mario explains: ‘We immediately organised ourselves into working groups to look for escape routes, keep the living area clean and patrol the shaft for signs of rescue attempts.
‘Luis was the foreman and so when we worked we naturally deferred to him but when the working day finished we were Los 33. We practised democracy. Each person had a vote and if 17 men voted one way, that made the decision. We tried to stay as normal as we could under the circumstances and to watch out for each other.
‘If one was down, the others rallied. Each day a different person took a bad turn. Every time that happened, we worked as a team, to try to keep the morale up. We older ones took care of the younger ones. We knew that if society broke down we would all be doomed. It was important to keep clean, to keep busy, to keep believing we would be rescued. It was important to keep faith.’
Mario’s leading role in the miners’ survival was described by colleague Yonni Barrios, 50, who was released from hospital yesterday. He said Mario provided the true leadership in the darkest hours.
‘I can say quite frankly, the one who contributed most from the beginning was Mario Sepulveda,’ he said. ‘It was he who did everything for us, who organised the team. He encouraged us not to lose hope, that some day we were going to get out.’
The air was so bad our eyes were burning the whole time. We were all coughing. It was like being in a filthy sauna where the air is full of dirt.
The men had meager supplies of canned tuna in the cramped refuge and limited themselves to half a bottle cap full each day. Water was taken from two industrial-sized oil drums which were full of water used to fill the radiators of the heavy equipment used down the mine – but tainted with oil.
Mario, a deeply religious man, says: ‘That was one act of God right there. We had water. It tasted foul but it didn’t poison us, even though it was tainted. We allowed ourselves a few small sips each day.’
Mario explains how he felt it was his job to keep spirits up. ‘I am a natural joker. When the others fell into despair, I would crack a joke or gee them along. I have always been a clown. I knew it was important for me to keep joking around.
“If I stopped joking then I would be letting them down. But sometimes it was hard to joke. They talk about the tears of a clown. That was me.’
Did he cry, I ask? ‘Sure, all the time. But I would walk away from the others, down a tunnel, so they would not see me weep. I knew I had to stay strong. My reputation in the mine was as a funny guy. I had to keep that reputation going, for the sake of morale.’
Then came a major boost. ‘There was underground water which we found on about day four and we used that water to bathe. It was run-off water from a shelf in the rocks. Once we found the water coming off the rock shelf we used a cup and would stand there, two in a pair, and help each other wash. We poured water on the other.’
But this hardly made up for the ‘inhumane’ conditions in the mine, where the ground was constantly wet. Mario pulls off his hospital socks to show his feet, which are still stained a reddish brown from the mud. He says he has a case of athlete’s foot.
He says: ‘The mine was swelteringly hot [around 92F, 33C]. We stripped down to our underwear. It was so humid you could not move without sweating.
‘The air was so bad our eyes were burning the whole time. We were all coughing. We made beds by putting cardboard on the floor.
‘The batteries in our helmet lights faded and then they went out completely on Day Three.’ The miners had a Nissan pick-up truck, a ‘scoop’ – a mechanical digger – a small cargo truck and another truck with a lift attached which is used to reach the roof. Mario says: ‘We used the vehicles for everything while we were down there. Some men slept in them, we used them to move stuff around and to explore the tunnels beneath us to look for any possible escape route going up.’
He says they spent much of the time in darkness but would use light from the headlamps to work by. They never totally ran out of light because if the battery in one vehicle went flat they could recharge it by running the engines.
They also sounded one of the vehicle’s horns every hour – just in case anyone on the other side would hear.
They conserved their light and used it as a ‘treat’. Mario says: ‘We are used to working in darkness -we are miners. We can feel our way down there in a way other men cannot. But we used the light to work by and eat and to reward ourselves and boost morale. An engineer found small low-wattage bulbs and rigged those up in the refuge and we ran those off a car battery. Mostly it was dark but that is what we are used to.’
Soon, hunger began to take its toll. Mario says: ‘I didn’t mind the hunger as much as some of the other men. I did military service. When you’ve been in the army, you know what hunger is and you are trained to ignore it. I knew we had water and could survive for two, maybe three weeks.’ But even Mario admits as the days wore on, his confidence dimmed.
‘We were in total darkness. The heat was oppressive. We all felt the Devil was down there with us. We prayed and prayed. It was a dark, black hole. We were buried alive. We were all so scared. We begged God to help us. We were worried we would starve to death or that the water would run out and we would die horribly from dehydration.’
‘I am not a superstar, I am a miner. I will always be a miner.’
All the time they were straining to hear signs that rescuers might be close. ‘We tried to keep quiet, to listen for anyone coming to get us. Then the mind started playing tricks and we would hear something and then another man would say, “No, you are imagining that sound.” It was cruel.
‘There was no night and day but we had our watches and we made sure we kept track of the time. We tried to keep the kids on a schedule. Anyone who has had children knows how important a sleep schedule is, and we fathers tried to implement that.’ As well as trying to survive in the grim conditions, there were some grim tasks to carry out.
‘There was a chemical toilet down there. When that got overwhelmed we dug a hole and once a day would shovel the waste out, put it in an oil drum and cover it with sand. We knew enough to keep sanitary conditions.’
He remains silent when asked if the miners came to blows but acknowledges that some of them became so depressed that they ‘cried like babies’, took to their makeshift beds and refused to get up.
The miners are expected to become overnight millionaires this week.
A ‘big announcement’ is expected on Tuesday at a Press conference called by Chilean businessman and philanthropist Leonardo Farkas – who wrote each man a cheque worth £6,500 while they were trapped.
Mario’s daughter Scarlette said: ‘He said when this all started that he would not rest until each of the accounts he opened for each miner with $10,000 reached a million dollars.
We know that donations have been pouring in from around the world.
‘The families are now so excited about what might be announced on Tuesday.
“The word is that each account is holding a million dollars. If that is true then our lives truly will never be the same again.’
Speaking about the Pact of Silence the men signed on the day the rescue drill broke through, he says: ‘By that time things had become very bad. When you are in a stressful situation like that, you do and say things in extremes. We made the Pact of Silence to protect some of the younger, less educated ones. It was a pact of brotherhood. Originally we were not going to talk at all about the 17 days.’
But, I ask, surely he is breaking that pact now? ‘No, I don’t believe I am betraying anyone,’ he answers. ‘The reason I am speaking is that people have been gossiping and saying things and I think it is important for one of us, me in this case, to tell it as it was down there, but also to answer some of the things that people are getting wrong.”
‘There are some things I will never talk about. But they are things that would embarrass some of the kids. Nothing sexual, more that they acted like kids. It is important, even now, for the older ones to protect the younger, more vulnerable ones.’
Despite their continuing ordeal, Mario says the miners managed to break the monotony with moments of jollity – recalling one incident in particular that seemed to lift spirits.
‘The days went one into another. The first week was bad, but the second week, that was terrible. Some of the boys were taking it bad. They didn’t think we would be rescued. I was beginning to wonder myself.
‘On about Day Ten, I was sleeping and I heard the others moving about. The mood was sombre. So I lay very rigid and I said very weakly, “Hey guys, hey, I need to say something.
‘They gathered around and I was playing like I was dying and I said, very slowly, “My friends, say to my family that I love them. Tell them that the money is in the . . .” and then I pretended to expire. The others were quiet and I held my breath. Then I could hold it no more and burst out laughing!
When the drill broke through, the men ‘danced around the tunnel like crazy things’.
‘They started yelling at me. But many of them have told me since that this is the moment when they realised God had a plan for them. Even if we were all going to die down there, we were going to do it as a group, with dignity.
‘Humour helped us. Sometimes it is easier to laugh than cry.’
I ask him if, as has been reported, the miners ever discussed or considered cannibalism. ‘Do you think about things like that? I didn’t. Maybe some men did. Maybe I would have thought about that if things had got worse.
‘I just thought about dying. I thought about my wife, my kids. I thought about what I would say to them. We all wrote letters to our families. We wrote farewell notes. We all tried to keep faith alive but, to be brutally honest, by those last few days I am not sure if any of us truly believed we would be found. But our faith made us believe that people on the surface would not forsake us.’
Katty, who arrived at Camp Hope within 24 hours of the cave-in, says even she had started to despair. ‘The first week the rescuers told us there was little chance of our husbands coming out alive.
‘At first, the wives were united but as the days went on and a rescue looked less hopeful, the fighting started. Some wives got morose, others got angry with the government, with the company, with everyone. I just stayed quiet and prayed. My husband is very different from me. He is the loud, funny one. I am the quiet one who keeps everything calm. I tried to keep the faith but I must admit that by the tenth day, I thought I was a widow.’
Mario says when the drill broke through, the men ‘danced around the tunnel like crazy things’.
‘We then all believed we would be saved. The Devil was down there and so was God. I didn’t see either but I felt both. They were in a battle for our souls. And God won.’
Katty has kept all the notes Mario wrote to her from the mine which she received in the cylindrical palomas, or ‘doves’, sent through one of three small ‘lifeline’ tunnels which were used to get food, aid and water to the men while the ‘Plan B’ drill was carving out the shaft they would escape through.
We feared we would die horribly. We wrote farewell notes to our families.’
Mario has given the watch he had in the mine to his son. His daughter has his helmet – signed by the other 32 miners. Scarlette shows me a 20-minute video of his ‘official’ 40th birthday below ground, complete with balloons she sent down which her father inflated. A ‘proper’ party was being held at home for Mario last night after his discharge from hospital.
After that, Mario will have some tough decisions to make about the megabucks offers he and the other miners are receiving for their stories. He says any money will be used for the good of his family.
‘I am not a superstar, I am a miner. I will always be a miner. I will take whatever money I make from this and I will make sure my kids have a college fund. I’ll buy a house and I’d like to take my wife on holiday. Apart from that, I would like to use what we have been through to help other working men. The attitude needs to change here in Chile – and then the world.
‘This situation won’t affect someone like me, who has a wife and kids. But, for sure, some of the younger miners will have their heads turned by the offers of money and fame. We have been talking in the hospital this week about this and we have agreed to try to stick together, to carry on supporting the younger ones.’
Mario adds: ‘I see this as something that has united the world. I am a humble man and I am happy to have played a small part in an event which has made the world come together, if just for a moment.’