On August 5th, 2010, a temblor caused the collapse of deep exit tunnels in the San Jose copper and gold mine in some two hundred miles north of Santiago, Chile. This has been a year of intolerable national disasters for Chile, including both an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and a devastating tsunami. The news from the August 5th mining disaster seemed destined to fit the solemn and depressing narrative as it was reported that 33 miners were lost behind the cave-in and presumed dead, as water and air was felt likely only available for 48 hours. As days stretched to several weeks the efforts to drill relief holes were felt to likely be perfunctory – then a miracle. On August 22, seventeen days after the cave in, a sentinel probe drill was noted to vibrate and upon being withdrawn from a point some 2200 feet under the ground, was found to have a note attached – Estamos bien in el refugio los 33 – we are safe in the shelter the 33.
We are once again confronted with the amazing tendency for the human race rise to heights of true heroism. Thirty three common men faced with fearsome odds and rapidly diminishing resources, managed to stay alive and sane in the pitch darkness of a hole 2,257 feet underground lit only by their head lamps and stretch water and food resources for 17 days until a rescue relief 4 inch drill hole that they had no certainty would reach them provided them with contact to the outside world. They were not specially trained cavers, submarine officers, or survivalists. In the notes that followed to the surface, it was clear that these men were driven only by their bonds to each other, and their hope to someday see their families again.
The challenge that lies ahead of them remains daunting. Even provided the most modern machinery, it is assumed a relief channel sufficient to lift out grown men will take up to 60 or more days to drill. The ever present risks of further mine collapse, disease, claustrophobic dementia, depression, and physical collapse remain dangerous adversaries to the men, who, if they survive will likely have sustained themselves longer than any previous group has in such conditions.
Chile is a country that has survived its own civil crises of the 1970’s to become a leading light in both economic and civil progress in the Americas. It is putting on display the inate strength of its national character in this year of challenge, and thirty three men are showing us all the way to face difficult moments, work together for a common good, and hopefully, ultimately, triumph.
It just may elevate us all.