10th anniversary: Trapped miners who gave humanity hope

Chilean miners being rescued throug a shaft called Phoenix. Alamy photo

Trapped miners. BBC photo

*Exactly ten years today, August 5, 2010, the San Jose Mine, near Copiapo, Chile, collapsed trapping 33 miners 2,300 feet underground. This is my  October 15, 2010 column in the VANGUARD Newspapers narrating their miraculous rescue:

Trapped miners who gave humanity hope 

By Owei Lakemfa

 I KEPT vigil like millions of humanity. We were breathless; will things go according to plan? It was Wednesday October 13, 2010 and Day 69 of 33 Chilean miners being trapped over 700 metres below the earth’s surface. It had been the longest case of people trapped in a mining accident being rescued. If those of us thousands of kilometres away could hardly hold our breath, imagine the state of the Chilean people led by President Sebastian Pinera, then that of the miners families who kept vigil at the tent settlement ‘Camp Hope’. 

But all these would be incomparable to the trapped men’s state of mind. They were engaged in one of the world’s most hazardous professions. Their aim of burrowing so deep into earth was primarily to put food on the family table, then there was the disaster and everything, including life seemed lost. There was the shock, then the gradual recovery as the men slowly came to the full realisation that they were trapped so deep in the bowels of the earth while the rest of humanity, including their loved ones were far above. 

Then contact was established; the world in one way or another rallied round. It was a race for time, and time seemed in short supply. There was all round pessimism; the realistic date to haul the men from the San Jose gold and copper mine and re-unite them with the rest of humanity was about a hundred days. The hope was to rescue them before Christmas. Then it was shortened to early December. Out of the blues came a seemingly over optimistic projection; that the men will join the rest of us in November. The first drill went into operation, then the B drill, and a third; it was some hope that our collective luck would hold. Then Drill B shot through the rocks at such Olympian speed that on Saturday October 9, it reached the men and world attention was now fully on Chile, a country which under the severe repression of the human butcher, Augusto Pinochet was usually in the international media for negative reasons.

 There followed the debate whether the 625-metre rescue shaft should be cased or not to avoid a last minute disaster. The decision to do partial casing satisfied the twin concerns for speed and safety. The rescue capsule, appropriately named Phoenix had been tested down part of the cylindrical-shaped shaft and the conclusion was that it will take half an hour to haul each miner to safety. But as the world watched with over a thousand journalists at the mine camp site, in 16 minutes flat, the Phoenix was back on the earth’s surface conveying the first of the world’s most famous miners,31-year old Florencio Avalos, whose brother was also trapped. He looked in good shape having exercised regularly like the rest of his entrapped comrades.

 They all had been kept quite busy working eight-hour shifts, exercising, writing and reading letters from their loved ones who camped on the surface. I wondered what was going on in his mind. It was a major triumph for humanity; to snatch 33 precious souls from the jaws of death. Years back, such men might have been abandoned with the mine as their collective tomb. Was this rescue a fluke? 

Trapped Chilean miners.
Credit: Boston.com

Again we waited, trying to catch our breath; the countdown began, first the minutes, then the seconds and sure! Out came the Phoenix, then the doors opened to reveal 39-year old Mario Sepulveda Espinace, an electricity specialist. He was bubbly, hopping like a football star. He rummaged through his miner bag and surfaced with gifts for his rescuers. It was a most elating moment for me. Within two hours, he held a press conference during which he said of the rescue team: “They gave us back our lives”. 

Then the Phoenix went down a third time and brought Juan Illanes Palma. The fourth up was Carlos Mamani Solis, a Bolivian. The youngest of the miners, Jimmy Sanchez, 18 was next. The oldest of the miners is 63-year old Mario Gomez. Early in the rescue effort, he had sent a reassuring message: “We will be out”. After the fifth rescue, there was a delay; the capsule was re oiled, checked before being lowered to bring up 30-year old Osman Araya whose wife embraced him near the capsule entrance; they have three kids.

It was human endurance, courage, perseverance at its best. Everything seemed to have gone very well; none of the men needed immediate surgery or any complicated medical procedure, although a few had health problems. For instance, Jose Ojeda Vidal, the seventh miner rescued is diabetic. 

Nature also co-operated beautifully: a country which suffered a devastating earthquake in February, was spared such tragic natural disasters and the rescue efforts were not disrupted. The world was united on the miners; it realised that tragedy or natural disasters know no creed, race, religion, ideology or colour. 

The race to rescue the Chilean miners unified the human race; it re-emphasised the eternal truth that humanity is one race. The incident also showed again that until we are put to test, we may never know how much we can endure as human beings under such severe conditions. 

The rescue, one of the most complex and best televised in history, is a homage to human engineering ingenuity and organisational prowess; the recovery time between the tragedy, commencement of rescue operations and the organisation of the men into orderly work shifts are unprecedented. The men’s sense of unity, maintenance of their sanity and the sense of comradeship under such energy-sapping adversity is unparalleled. 

President Pinera’s promise that Chilean mining laws will be enhanced to check this type of accident is actually a wakeup call to all humanity; safety must take precedence over profit or productivity. Unfortunately, the world for quite some time, will continue to be confronted by mine disasters until human miners are replace by robots or new mining techniques are developed that does not put miners at risk.