News Pro

Elvis-crooning Chile miner fights demons a year on

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - In rehab for drugs and alcohol abuse after an agonizing two months trapped in the bowels of the earth, the Chilean miner who won America’s heart by crooning Elvis Presley hits is still wrestling with his dark side a year on from his rescue.

Rescued Chilean miner Edison Pena poses at the Empire State Building in New York, November 5, 2010. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

As most of the 33 miners celebrated on Thursday the anniversary of a spectacular rescue that transfixed hundreds of millions of viewers across the globe and made them stars, Edison Pena was hundreds of miles away in therapy.

Pena was the miner who drew most attention and was feted with trips to run marathons in New York to Japan, sing Elvis Presley hits on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and even visit Graceland.

But Pena gave in to cocaine and alcohol and slipped into an alternate reality he says he yearns to shake off.

“They were like sedatives for adrenaline,” he told Reuters in an interview in the capital Santiago after a session with his therapist, sipping at an instant coffee. “It was like I was traveling in a car that only had an accelerator.”

“There’s this parallel me, we are trying to hide him ... like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” the 35-year-old Pena said. “We want to lock him up in a box and keep him there. He wants to come out.”

A marathon fanatic, Pena tried to keep his mind strong while he was trapped by running six miles a day down in the mine’s hot, humid tunnels. He came to imagine his captivity as an opponent to battle.

“Come on, do it. Is that all you got?” he said in a drawl looking to the heavens, imitating Sylvester Stallone in a scene out of the 1996 film Daylight, a disaster movie about being trapped inside a New York tunnel. “Stallone talks to his captivity. That’s me.”

A keen movie buff, Pena also relates to Caesar, a chimpanzee who leads a rebellion against captivity in this year’s movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

“You can see his hate of captivity in his eyes,” he said.

The miners survived on dwindling rations of food and water for 17 days until rescue crews finally located them against all odds by drilling a tiny hole the width of a grapefruit down through 2,050 feet of solid rock.

It was another nearly two months before they were finally pulled free in a capsule just wider than a man’s shoulders, racked with constant fears a fresh rock collapse would kill them. It took its toll, and Pena is on medication.


Drunk or stoned much of the time after his escape, Pena would burst into tears and shout at public functions. He was still in bad shape until as recently as August, when he finally checked into rehab for a month. Now he’s an outpatient.

“I like myself more now, I feel more credible, this is the true Edison -- the other was a puppet manipulated by I don’t know who.” “People very close to me have said that the real Edison remained down in the mine. I think a part of me is still down there.”

Now constantly accompanied by a psychotherapist as he tries to return to a normal life away from the spotlight, Edison says his alter-ego is like an out of control gorilla.

Several of his fellow trapped miners are grappling with hardships, having failed to capitalize financially on the publicity storm that surrounded them a year ago.

Some had hoped to make it rich and never have to work again. There have been advances for a book and a film, but the miners say they have made very little money out of the saga.

Pena also needs to get back to work and says he would even consider returning down a mine -- though while the nightmares have subsided, his biggest fear remains being trapped in another mine collapse.

“Perhaps I could work in mining again, maybe on the surface, or work as an electrician as I have done before. I haven’t decided yet.”

For now he is taking life one day at a time, and has one near-term goal that lights up his face.

“I’m running in the New York marathon again,” he said, holding up the sports wristwatch emblazoned with the logo from last year’s race, when he was cheered on by banner-waving supporters and treated like the winner.

“It keeps me mentally strong. It’s 90 percent in the head. It makes me feel free,” he added, bursting into a bar of Elvis’ “C’mon Everybody”.

Editing by Kieran Murray