Man of the deep

After being trapped underground for 69 days, Edison Peña, a.k.a. “the Runner,” emerged to a new, if more complicated, life

Man of the deep

Peña emerges from the mine (left); Channelling Elvis Presley on Letterman | Hugo Infante/Reuters; Jeffrey R. Staab/AP

Edison Peña thought he would die, or maybe that he was dead already. He wasn’t. But the life of the 34-year-old man, who until recently earned about $1,000 a month digging for gold and copper in dank tunnels hundreds of metres beneath the ground, has changed utterly.

Peña is one of the 33 miners who spent more than two months buried in the collapsed San José mine in Chile’s Atacama desert. Their rescue was watched by as many as one billion people and transformed several of the miners, including Peña, into global celebrities. Brad Pitt’s production company is reportedly trying to secure exclusive film rights to their story. Of the 33, Peña is among the most famous. He charmed television viewers with his Elvis Presley impersonation on The Late Show With David Letterman. He performed a Santiago concert duet with Olivia Newton-John, belting out Summer Nights from the musical Grease. And in November, he successfully completed the New York City Marathon.

He seemed an enticing character for journalists—resolute and a little eccentric. During the 69 days the miners were trapped underground, while rescue shafts pushed deeper into the mountain that held them, international media camped out on the surface created pithy handles to describe actors in the unfolding drama. There was “the Doctor,” “the Soccer Player,” “the Preacher,” “the Presenter.” Peña became “the Running Man,” because he ran as many as 10 km daily in workboots he had cut down to make more suitable for jogging. That he asked for Elvis music to be sent down the boreholes that brought the miners food and medicine made him even more attractively quirky.

But doctors worried he was punishing himself and feared for his health. And after Peña was rescued, glimpses of a more tormented man emerged. In a BBC documentary, he is shown yelling at family members, asking why he had to die. Some look uncomfortable. One tells him he didn’t die. Peña appears close to breaking down. “When we were trapped, I thought we were going to die,” he told journalists in the wake of his rescue. “Do you know what that is? Do you think I was waiting for the [rescue] drill to break through? No, my friend, I was running. I was running.”

It is clear that weeks buried alive took a heavy toll on several miners. “He can’t sleep at night. He has nightmares. He’s shy now and doesn’t say much. It’s very strange. He used to be so expressive,” José Rojas said in an interview with Maclean’s, speaking of his brother, Pablo Rojas, one of the 33. Several of the miners speak of their rescue as if they have been born again. Many claim a renewed appreciation for family and for those they love. They have been given a second chance at life, and a perspective that only comes from facing death. “I realized that my family is the first thing in my life,” Alex Vega said after he was winched to safety. “I’ve also changed spiritually. I’ve become closer to God.”

The miners’ deliverance raised the spirits of many who watched it happen. It also lifted the fortunes of Chile’s recently elected president, Sebastían Piñera. When the mine collapsed, Piñera’s aides advised him to stay well clear of it. Safety standards in Chilean mines are notoriously poor, and here was a disaster that starkly highlighted the human cost. A more risk-averse politician might have tried to wash his hands of the incident. Instead, Piñera sent his mining minister, Laurence Golborne, to the mine and soon joined him there. Judging the San Esteban Mining Co., which owned the mine, incapable of leading rescue efforts, he ordered the government to take over and vowed to do whatever was necessary to free the trapped men.

True, the rescue was stage-managed and sometimes crass. When a probe broke through to the refuge where the miners were sheltering, confirming for the first time they were alive 17 days after the accident, the announcement was delayed until Piñera could fly in to make it. Families camped out nearby only heard the news because a rescue worker defied orders to tell them. “It’s not necessary for the president to come here,” the stepmother of a miner told Maclean’s during one of Piñera’s visits. “It’s just to make him popular. It won’t work.”

But as weeks passed even cynical hearts softened. Piñera was as good as his word. Experts from around the world were brought in. Three separate rescue shafts were drilled. No expense was spared. When the miners were finally brought to the surface, the operation was smooth and glorious. Piñera embraced each miner to step from the “Phoenix” rescue capsule. The president is a wealthy man who might have looked out of place among such rough-edged miners. But he didn’t. His pride and affection were genuine. His approval rating among Chileans has soared since.

Edison Peña, meanwhile, may be finding a measure of peace and purpose. While he was entombed, Peña wrote a letter to journalist Dan McDougall and told him he ran because he had “fury” inside him. In New York he said he wanted to motivate others, “to convince them to do what they set out to do in life.”

Throughout his ordeal, Peña was helped by his partner, Angelica Alvarez. When they were separated by the mountain, she sent him letters and photographs. She hugged him when he climbed out of the rescue capsule. And she was there again at the finish line in New York. Peña says his time underground has made him more human. “I think I’m loving everybody more,” he told the BBC. “I believe in touching people. I think I love myself more.”

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