Edison Pena is a keen runner and even while trapped hundreds of metres below the ground he managed to keep running. He did it for hours every day to take his mind off his situation.
Edison was described as one of the most depressed men in the Chilean mine but that’s not the way he came across the first time I saw him.
Two days before the rescue operation brought the first man to the surface, I managed to make contact with the group myself. I bought a tiny video camera and recorded a message for the miners.
I introduced myself and explained that I was one of the many journalists waiting outside the mine for the men to be rescued. In my video message, I invited any of the miners to record their own thoughts. Then through a contact – whose name I will keep secret – my little camera was sent down the tube connecting the trapped men to the outside world and a little time later it was sent back up.
Moved and astonished
Mario Gomez and Dario Segovia sent messages to their families but Edison Pena and Esteban Rojas sent messages to me. I watched the video over and over, both moved and astonished.
Esteban Rojas was shy and formal, he said he did not know if we would ever meet but he would like to. Edison Pena was funny – he blew kisses to the camera and imitated my Venezuelan accent, narrating what in his mind was a portion of a local soap opera. He apologized for the jokes saying that the solitude was getting to his head.
Watch part of the message sent to me here.
Days later, after the men had been rescued and then released from hospital, I went to find Edison.
He lives in a small town outside Copiapo in a modest apartment that’s part of a public housing project. I didn’t know the unit number but I spotted it right away – it had a large Chilean flag with writing on it.
I knocked on the door and a short, thin man opened it with a smile. I recognised Edison immediately. I said I was the reporter who sent the video camera down the mine and he started jumping up and down. He pulled me into his home, telling everyone there that I was the woman who sent him the message.
We were pleased to meet each other but the other people in the apartment weren’t that happy to see me. His wife and his mother gave me serious stares and a local man told me I couldn’t bring my cameraman inside because he had already paid for exclusive access to Edison’s story.
Late that evening I went back to Edison’s place and asked if I could watch his “exclusive” paid interview with Chilean TV.
He agreed and was again joking around – he even showed me his Elvis impression. The live interview was bizarre. He avoided many aspects of his ordeal – telling the entertainment reporter that the men had all agreed not to speak about certain things.
He criticised the government for not doing more to regulate the mining industry before the accident and said he and his colleagues could easily have died. He was eloquent and honest and after the TV lights went dim his mother – who was watching upstairs – came down and hugged him.
Securing an interview
Now came my turn to try and secure an interview. I explained that Al Jazeera has a policy of not paying people to talk but Edison asked if I was personally going to make money if he agreed to sit down with me. I told him that I wouldn’t but his wife grew angry, she said if I wasn’t prepared to pay then I should leave the house. I left Edison’s place but I wasn’t ready to give up on the interview.
We caught up with another miner – Esteban Rojas – at a street celebration later. He also said he couldn’t talk in great detail but he did say he was grateful to all the people who had thought about the 33 miners and followed their ordeal.
Watch Esteban Rojas’ homecoming party here.
Edison Pena and I spoke on the phone later and he apologised for not giving me the interview and for asking for mone
He told me that he wants to stop being poor and feels this is an opportunity to do that. He said he’s been offered the chance to be the official “face” of a sports company (because he is a good runner) and he’s also been invited to visit the Elvis museum in the United States. I told him I fully understand his position – and I do.
Dealing with instant fame is going to be a challenge for these men. In the mine they were insulated from the outside world (in every respect) and had a huge support system to help them get through the ordeal.
On the surface they have to deal with a whole new set of stresses and whatever tensions and problems they had before they were trapped. I wish them well.