“I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God.”
Those were the words of Mario Sepulveda, the second miner to be freed after spending more than two months trapped underground in a collapsed mine in Chile.
At this writing, the rescue effort is proceeding smoothly, as each of the 33 miners is brought to the surface, one by one, in a two-foot-diameter cage dubbed the Phoenix. The last of the miners was expected to taste the fresh air of freedom late Wednesday evening or Thursday morning.
As the world waits, prays, and cheers on the rescue effort, it’s worth reviewing the blessings in this amazing story of ingenuity and perseverance.
They begin with the resilience, patience, and courage of the miners. These men spent their first 17 days with no contact with the surface world, unaware of what kind of rescue effort might be under way or when it might reach them.
This is believed to be the deepest rescue of trapped miners in history, and the miners are the longest to survive an underground collapse on record. They are ordinary working men, who took daily risks doing a job most people would avoid if possible.
Their stories have already touched the world. Ariel Ticona became the father of his first child, Esperanza Ticona, while he was trapped more than a third of a mile underground. Jimmy Sanchez, only 19, wrote that he was looking forward to his mother’s cooking. “That will happen soon,” he said. “After the bad comes the good.”
Working together, the miners organized themselves into three eight-hour shifts for work, relaxation, and sleep. Some jogged through the tunnels to keep in shape, others led singalongs or wrote journals.
All of them face a new world back on the surface, one in which the benefits of their sudden celebrity will be balanced by the challenges of readjustment. A Chilean mine owner has started a $10,000 bank account for each of the miners to which others can donate. Hollywood will want their stories.
The thoughtful care of these brave men must continue as their lives go forward.
Far above them, through tons of rock and earth at Camp Esperanza (Hope), families and more than 1,000 journalists awaited each capsule’s arrival at the surface. As below, the story above ground was also one of working together to overcome adversity. Aid arrived from around the world, including the American-made Schram T-130 drill that completed the rescue hole weeks ahead of schedule.
Chilean President Sebastian Piñera and Bolivian President Evo Morales, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, were both on hand – President Morales to greet a rescued Bolivian miner, Carlos Mamani, who shouted: “Gracias, Chile!” as he emerged.
Hopes were raised that the disaster may help bring the neighboring countries, at odds over a border dispute for more than a century, closer together.
“Bolivia will never forget,” Morales said. “This is a historic moment, and this unites us more every day. These events are fostering greater trust between Bolivia and Chile.”
“We have learned from this accident that unity, faith, hope, and courage can achieve all the goals that we can set for our country,” President Piñera added.
As with every mine disaster, efforts must be made to find the cause, and either reinforce safety regulations now in place or take new preventive measures.
Over time, such efforts are working around the world. So far this year, the lives of 59 US miners have been lost to accidents (only 18 in 2009). But that compares with 3,242 US mining deaths in 1907. The mining death toll in China last year was 2,631. But that was down from about 7,000 reported just seven years earlier, according to Reuters news service.
Today’s worldwide recession can try to push thoughts in an inward, fearful, “me first” direction. In the United States, the rhetorical mud of another hostile political campaign season would try to turn the democratic process into an ugly smear.
But the mine rescue in Chile is a reminder of what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature." When people join together, extraordinary things can happen.