From the archives: Buried alive for 69 days

Five years ago this week, 33 miners emerged from the collapsed San José mine in Copiapó, Chile. Four months later, Bob Simon told their story

CBS All Access
This video is available on Paramount+

It attracted more than a billion viewers worldwide -- one of the most watched television events ever. Five years ago today, people were mesmerized as 33 Chilean miners stepped from darkness into light. It was a rescue operation of epic proportions. And the miners were lionized as living proof that courage and endurance can prevail.

Four months after the rescue, the late Bob Simon and a 60 Minutes team flew to Copiapó, where the mine collapsed. They wanted to see how the miners were doing and to learn more about what was really going on during those 69 days half a mile underground. Before the rescue, "the 33," as they called themselves, made a pact of silence. But several opened up to Simon and talked about things they had been keeping to themselves.


One revelation came from miner Victor Zamora. He said that prior to making contact with the outside world, the men had become so desperate, they contemplated suicide. "I said to a friend, well, if we're going to continue suffering, it would be better for all of us to go to the shelter, start an engine, and with the carbon monoxide, just let ourselves go," Zamora told Simon. "We were going to die anyway."

By day 16, starved for food, they realized they would need to eat anyone who died, according to Jonathan Franklin, author of a book called "33 Men." Fortunately, it never came to that. On day 17, a drill came punching through the ceiling. All thoughts of cannibalism and suicide disappeared into the dust.

"I was so weak I couldn't even stand and then all of a sudden I found myself jumping for joy," Zamora recalled. "It was like celebrating New Year's Eve or having a newborn child."

But being located didn't end their ordeal. Rescuers had to figure out how to safely extract the men. They were finally liberated on day 69, emerging as heroes. The next few months were a blur: They met with then-Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, received numerous awards and visited Disney World.

But for many, Simon reports, the celebration was short-lived. They were haunted by memories of what they had escaped. "Whenever I hear a noise, I get scared and look around me," said mechanic Alex Vega. "My heart beats faster. I can't go into small spaces. I'm taking five or six pills a day now."

Nearly all of the 33 men, doctors said, suffered severe psychological problems after the accident, complicating their relationships and, in some cases, rendering them unable to work. And the miners told Simon they weren't getting the quality medical care and benefits they had been promised.

"Before I went in here, I was a happy guy," Zamora told Simon, standing outside the mine during his first trip back since the rescue. "But now I'm having nightmares, I'm having problems. I'm not the same person."

"What kind of nightmares are you having?" Simon asked.

"Being trapped, watching my friends around me die, rocks falling," Zamora said. "The other me is still in there."