“An Absolute Masterpiece Of Geological Horror”

View on October 13, 2011 of the tunnel t

That’s how Geoff Manaugh describes the opening chapters of Deep Down DarkHéctor Tobar’s account of the 2010 Chilean mine disaster. Really riveting stuff:

Tobar builds and builds to the actual moment of collapse, like an orchestra tuning itself to some inevitable and apocalyptic note that only gets more terrifying as its implications becomes clear. There are dust clouds and claps of thunder; changes in air pressure and growing suspicions; then an event unlike anything I’d ever read about before—the complete internal cleaving of a so-called “mega-block” inside the mine. Here, Tobar explains that a single block of diorite two times heavier than the Empire State Building has suddenly broken free inside the mountain.

It immediately free-falls straight downward like a cork plunging into a bottle of wine, breaking through the spiraling ramp on hundreds of underground levels and completely—seemingly fatally—trapping the miners nearly at the very bottom of the entire complex.

After hours—days, weeks—of audible strain and the popping of unseen faults, “the essential structure of the mountain must have failed.” It’s as if the entire mountain is “pancaking” from within, Tobar writes: “the vast and haphazard architecture of the mine, improvised over the course of a century of entrepreneurial ambition is finally giving way.”

For the trapped miners, the inhuman scale of this “mega-block” makes it into an almost totemic object, an otherworldly and supernatural mass. It is impossible for the miners to comprehend, let alone to see, in its entirety, and crawling around or—given their now drastically limited tools and virtually non-existent food supply—digging through.  As Tobar points out, “Only later will the men learn the awesome size of the obstacle before them, to be known in a Chilean government report as a ‘megabloque.’ …

And, terrifyingly, it is not done falling.

(Photo: A view on October 13, 2011 of the tunnel that collapsed trapping 33 miners at San Jose mine, in Copiapo, Chile, 850 km north of Santiago, during the first anniversary of the rescue. By Ariel Marinkovic/AFP/Getty Images)