Resurrection! The debt we all owe Chile's inspirational miners

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One billion of us watched Los 33's incredible, uplifting return from the dead – and our faith in humankind was reborn. This weekend at least, the world feels a better place.

Few events have the power to unite evangelists of religion and science nowadays. But the rescue of the 33 miners after 69 days trapped 2,000ft underground in the San Jose Mine in Chile's remote Atacama desert has touched in equal measure preachers and physicists – and, indeed, everyone in between. The global TV audience that watched live and – like me – blubbed as, one by one, these men miraculously emerged from a living hell, has been estimated at somewhere over one billion.

For some, the miracle was a traditional one. At 64, grey-haired Mario Gomez was the oldest miner to escape from the bowels of the earth. When he stepped out of the Fenix 2 rescue capsule that had carried him to the surface, he fell to his knees in prayer. "I have come back to life," he announced, recalling the return from the dead of Lazarus in the gospels.

For others, the miracle was much more modern and technological. It was humankind's boundless ingenuity and knowledge that had saved these men from the jaws of nature, and of certain death, not the divine hand. It was a triumph for the drills that had dug down at speed through the ground to the refuge at level 105, where the men had been having their lunch break on 5 August when the earth let out a shudder and sealed them in. And for the cameras that provided the buried miners and their rescuers on the surface with the moral boost of constant face-to-face contact – and which incidentally also allowed us to watch what once we could only imagine in our nightmares, what it was to be encased in the ground. And, most of all, for the Fenix 2 capsule, just 21 inches in diameter, the most claustrophobic of lifts, designed by Nasa and Chilean navy engineers from a German blueprint, and looking as it landed and took off from the underground miners' chamber like something from the moon landing of 1969, another global TV spectacle.

The test that has been so dramatically passed by saving these men is many-fold. As well challenging God and/or science, it was a test of human endurance against odds that were greater than anything even Job had to put up with in the Old Testament. How would we do in that situation, we could all ask ourselves as we looked on in awe, hoping the answer was that we would get through it, but suspecting, deep down, that we might have smashed ourselves against the granite walls of this overheated, dank prison, and yielded to hysteria and certain death.

Again, it was the presence on the screens in our living rooms of the live feeds from the miners' subterranean refuge that made this experience unique and compelling. It was an experiment on the human psyche with us all looking on. These miners, hitherto living tough but anonymous lives in a faraway country, extracting the copper that we take for granted in our coins, doorknobs, wires, pipes and microwave ovens, were suddenly centre-stage on our TVs when they were at their lowest point. Part of us wanted to look away. There was something indecent about staring, especially with the risk that it might all turn out badly. But we couldn't avert our eyes, and to our relief the men finally overcame the odds and thereby stopped our voyeurism from becoming something more shaming.

In August 2000, when the Russian submarine Kursk sank after an explosion to the bottom of the Barents Sea, with 118 crew on board, we again looked on as rescue vessels gathered, and we wondered what it would be like to be 100 metres down in these Arctic waters, hoping and praying to survive and return to our loved ones. But that time, there were no pictures, so we could not engage at such an intimate level. It was an abstract dilemma. At the San Jose Mine, by contrast, we could look into the eyes of those desperately clinging to life and will them to come through their ordeal.

It was also a test of politicians. Could Chile's good-looking, recently elected TV-mogul president, Sebastian Piñera, and the equally telegenic mining minister, Laurence Golborne, match their fine words and reassuring smiles to the cameras with the nous to organise the experts in such a way as to mastermind the greatest of great escapes?

And it was a test of international co-operation. Russia refused help with rescuing the Kursk for several potentially critical days, fearful that it would compromise them and make them look weak. Here, however, Chile managed both to turn the crisis into a national triumph – "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!" the crowds chanted as the men emerged – and to enlist the help of the world. Experts from Nasa flew in to give advice on diet, on technology and on the psychology of those separated by a great natural barrier from the rest of humankind. Sunglasses at £290 a shot arrived from Oakley in California to shield the eyes of the miners if and when they saw daylight again, and David Villa, Barcelona's superstar striker, the son and grandson of miners, sent signed football shirts from Spain to show his support for the trapped men.

Ultimately, though, it was a test of our humanity, of how deep was our capacity for empathy with 33 men we didn't know at all, but who were facing what we will all one day face, albeit less publicly: the prospect of death. Had they met their fate in the initial collapse, as many thousands of miners do around the world every year (and an average of 34 per annum in Chile alone), they might have made a footnote in international newspapers and caught our attention for no more than a second. But because they survived, trapped in an air pocket, they drew us all into their stories, into their families, into their lives and thus made us face things that we prefer to leave unsaid or unconsidered.

There was Richard Villaroel, a 26-year-old mechanic, who is to become a father in November. Would he live to see his child at all? And then would he be free in time? At one stage, President Piñera was talking of the rescue mission taking until Christmas.

These men, moreover, reminded us, at a time when the temptation is to draw an ever narrower circle round our country, our community, our co-believers, our gated street, our family and even ourselves, that we are not always able to blank out the misery of others and concentrate on pandering to our own needs. And, indeed, that we don't really want to. Much has been written of the rise and rise of the me-me-me culture, but as we have cried and gasped and been touched by events in Chile, we have all also seen a better, more attractive side of ourselves. In that sense, the resurrection of the miners could also be a shot in the arm for the notion that solidarity – rather than isolation and individualism – is the default human setting.

And particularly for those of us living comfortable Western lives, there was something humbling about the essential human dignity of these working men as they faced a challenge that we, with all our cushions and therapists' couches, stuggle to contemplate in the abstract: their togetherness in crisis, their discipline, even when the chance of survival was remote, their ability to hold on to their optimism throughout, and their final re-emergence, washed and shaved, holding it all together when they must have wanted to collapse in a heap – all of these have taught us something. In short, we owe them.

Chile produced 27 per cent of the world's copper in 2009, way ahead of its nearest rivals, Peru and the US. With demand insatiable in the Asian economies, especially in the Chinese juggernaut, prices for copper have been rising steadily of late, ironically reaching a 27-month high in September just after the world's gaze turned to the Atacama desert. Exports of the red metal bring £3.5bn a month into the Chilean public purse, most of it via the state-owned Codelco concern.

The boom has breathed new life into many old, dilapidated mines such as San José, 500 miles north of Santiago, on a mineral-rich but bleak, rainless plateau between the Andes and the Pacific. Safety concerns had been expressed about it, but a job is a job in these tough times for the global economy, and £415 a month in wages is sufficient incentive to put such warnings to one side in what is intrinsically a dangerous profession.

Among the shift that went down the steep, zigzagging rampa – or main path – of San José on 5 August were several veteran miners such as Omar Reygadas, a 56-year-old widower and great-grandfather, and Mario Gomez, who had started work underground half a century earlier when he was 12. They were joined, at the other end of the scale, by a young Bolivian, 24-year-old Carlos Mamani, a heavy machine operator who had started work there just five days before, crossing the border into Chile in search of work to support his young family. And by baby-faced 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, already the father of a two-month-old daughter, but a mining novice with just five months' experience below ground. Also in the party was a maintenance man, Victor Zamora, 33, who was simply coming down to fix one of the mine vehicles.

At lunchtime, they had gathered for lunch in the refuge, 2,000ft down on level 105, when the whole mine shuddered, rocks began to fall and they were engulfed in clouds of thick dust and grit. "The most difficult moment," said the shift foreman, 54-year-old Luis Urzua, known as "Don Lucho" and a key figure in bringing this whole drama to a happy, uplifting end, "came when the air cleared and we saw the rock [blocking the way out]. We knew this was going to be difficult. Suddenly a lot of people tried to do things that were not the best, but luckily we learned to maintain sanity, and thank God there was no accident."

Were they clawing at the rock, clambering over one another in an instinctive urge to get out by any means possible? Don Lucho isn't saying. Some things, he feels, are better left between those who experienced them. He has been credited by his fellow miners with instilling the calm and discipline that enabled them to survive both the initial collapse and a second one, two days later, that appeared to diminish any hope. But hope they still had for, although supplies were short, it was strictly rationed to give them all the best possible chance. Once every 48 hours, they were each allowed two small mouthfuls of tuna, one biscuit and a sip of milk.

The Nobel-prizewinning author William Golding, in his 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, tells the tale of a group of British schoolboys stranded on a desert island who in extremis turn in on themselves and become savages and murderers. He seems to be suggesting that, when trapped and facing extinction, human beings lose any sense of morality or the common good and instead revert to a brutal individualism, each for themselves. One of the appeals of the story of the Chilean miners is that it appears to contradict that gloomy assessment of our basest instincts. There is a temptation to see it as somehow utopian, but this must be tempered by the realisation that this is not, as we have hoped, a black and white morality tale for our times. Already a more nuanced account is beginning to emerge, as the rescued men talk from their hospital beds of their ordeal, especially in those dark days when their hopes of getting out alive seemed to be fading. Richard Villaroel, the father-to-be, has told one newspaper that, as their food supplies dwindled, the spectre of the survival of the fittest, even of cannibalism, raised its ugly head, albeit unacknowledged openly. "At that moment, no one talked about it," he said, "but once [help came], it became a topic of joking, but only once it was over, once they found us."

His remarks pose the question of quite what the men were thinking, encased in the earth, with no light, little food and no sign of rescue. A glimpse is provided by the online diary kept by the three children of Omar Reygadas. Since he became the 17th of the men to journey back to the surface in Fenix 2, his daughter Ximena has reported in the diary the conversations the miners had been having. Of those long days of waiting, she writes: "He thought they'd been abandoned and the mining company wasn't going to help them ... he thought that once the rations were finished, or when they gave up trying to find them, they would die down there ... He prayed to God and asked him that, if he was going to take him, then please would he do it while he was sleeping, so he wouldn't suffer, wouldn't have to live through a landslide."

Others have given a similar snapshot of the sort of fears that inevitably gripped them: 34-year-old Edison Pena has spoken of the unbearable urge within him to see the sun again, while the 48-year-old electrician Victor Segovia has recounted how, when he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, "I suddenly dreamt we were in an oven".

Temperatures in the refuge were between 32 and 34 degrees, and the imagery of hell – the underground lair of the Christian Devil with its punishing fires and eternal torment – runs through much of what the miners have said so far about their prison: "I think I had extraordinary luck," remarked 40-year-old Mario Sepulveda, the second man to come up. "I was with God and with the Devil. And I reached out for God."

Chile is, of course, a very Catholic country, with some 70 per cent of the population nominally churchgoers. The Bishop of Copiapo, Caspar Quintana, was very visible supporting the miners' families as they gathered above ground to wait for news of their lost loved ones, and set up statues and makeshift shrines to the Virgin Mary. There was some talk, during the long wait, of tensions between Catholic clergy and representatives of Protestant sects which, with funding from the US, have spread rapidly in Latin America in recent decades. One of the trapped miners, 56-year-old José Henriquez, is an evangelical preacher. But Bishop Quintana quickly scotched the rumours; he was keen to ensure that no petty negativity impinged on this essentially uplifting story.

By 12 August, however, the situation was looking bleak. The mining minister, Mr Golborne, told waiting reporters that hopes of finding the missing men alive were "slim". Press attention wavered. It was turning into another tragedy. But below ground, those trapped in the refuge were hearing, in addition to terrifying rumbles that made them fear the earth piled above them was about to swallow them up with one last downwards lurch, the sound of drills. It gave them renewed hope that they might still be found. Some even dared to plan what they would do if they survived: 34-year-old Claudio Yanez and 44-year-old Esteban Rojas both resolved to marry their partners. Most agreed they would never venture down a mine again if they got out.

It wasn't until 23 August, 17 days after they had become trapped and with the rescuers losing heart, that the first of what has become a chain of miracles occurred. The bit of a drill, sent down from the surface, pierced the men's underground chamber. "We all wanted to hug it," Don Lucho recalled. Instead, they sang the national anthem, but then argued as to what return message to attach to it. Finally, all agreed to a simple note scrawled in red by 48-year-old José Ojeda, who, as the diabetic in the group, was suffering more than most: "Estamos bien en el refugio los 33." ("All 33 of us are well inside the shelter.")

When that note reached the surface, there was great rejoicing. The miners had been lost, but now were found. The families gathered in the tented village that had grown up around the mine and christened Campo Esperanza – Camp Hope – finally had the sign they had been waiting for. And so did the world's media. How, they immediately asked, do you reach trapped miners, 2,000ft down in a collapsed mine? It was time to sit up and take notice. Soon there would be as many as 1,500 local and international correspondents and camera crews jockeying for position in the Chilean desert.

Once the initial euphoria had subsided, though, the answers proved trickier than the questions and required cool heads and decisiveness. The men's immediate needs could be addressed by sending emergency supplies down the borehole. Water, food, medicine, clothing and eventually even camp beds were dispatched, as well as a telephone link. "Under a sea of rock," Don Lucho told President Piñera, "we are waiting for the whole of Chile to pull together so that we can be taken out of the shell." It was a challenge that echoed not just round Chile but round the world.

On 31 August, eight days after contact had been made with the trapped men, drilling began. In an effort to create, as soon as possible, a shaft big enough to haul the men up to safety, three different drills were used simultaneously. If one ran into difficulty, the other two would be well advanced. Two of the drills were standard raise-bore machines, familiar in the mining industry. They create a pilot hole which can then be widened. The third was imported from oil exploration and was capable of making a wide hole from the start.

As well as the families, the clerics, the politicians and the journalists gathering at ground level, various professional advisers hastened to the San José mine, bringing with them expertise in a variety of fields. Psychologists counselled the families on how best to use their eight-minute slots once every few days to speak directly to their loved ones via the camera link that had now been established, as well as the unlimited flow of letters being sent down the original borehole in tubes. Don't raise hopes too high, try to avoid going into detail about the rescue, the families were advised. Manage your own and your loved one's expectations.

Easy to say, but, I suspect, hard to adhere to. In his online diary, Omar, son of Omar Reygadas, said what he couldn't admit elsewhere. "We are worried about the force of nature," he wrote. What if there was another rockfall and hope was snatched away?

Both publicly and privately, the Chilean President and the mining minister were stressing the difficulty of the drilling operation. It could take three, even four months, they estimated. Would the men be out by Christmas? To the global audience of onlookers, watching the live feeds from the buried chamber of miners, stripped to the waist in the dank heat, it felt like torture. How much worse, though, to be going through it, counting off the days, powerless to do anything to make them pass more quickly. "It's a bit like Big Brother," one of the relatives blurted out, "except no-one is voted off the show."

After three days, the drills had reached down 120ft. Just another 1,800 to go. Yet, below ground, discipline and purpose were amazingly and impressively maintained. The men were split into three work parties – Grupo Refugio, Grupo Rampa and Grupo 105 - each with allocated tasks. They would sleep in shifts, deal with the food and letters coming up and down the borehole, and clear any debris caused by the drilling from above. Unless it was moved, more could not come down and the drills would grind to a halt.

Some took on specific roles. Fifty-year-old Yonni Barrios, for example, deployed the basic medical skills he had learned in caring for his diabetic mother, to become the group's unofficial doctor. Nineteen-year-old Jimmy Sanchez assisted him with monitoring temperatures and blood pressure. Conscious that any rescue shaft was going to be a tight fit, the men were being encouraged to exercise and get their weight down. Edison Pena began running along the half mile of clear tunnel he found to keep trim.

Whatever tensions and fears the men must have been harbouring within them at this crucial juncture, when the balance between failure and success could be tipped by any one of a whole series of what-ifs, they managed, at Don Lucho's insistence, to present a united front to the world.

Some have suggested, since the rescue, that the three working groups were really set up to avoid confrontations between volatile individuals; that there had been disputes, even fist fights, according to a note sent up and read by Daniel Sanderson, a miner on the surface helping with the rescue. But the watching audience saw none of this, and remained firmly on side. There had inevitably been bad moments, Don Lucho later said from his hospital bed, but, over all, democracy had prevailed and all had pulled together – and will continue to do so. He was not seeking to airbrush history but to avoid the focus moving from the main story to picking away at the edges.

Which, by and large, was the approach followed by those on the surface, too. So when Yonni Barrios, the stand-in doctor, was exposed as having both a young mistress and a wife waiting for him in Camp Hope, it was dismissed lightly as male weakness and soon forgotten – save, presumably, by Mrs Barrios.

As well as hard graft, the men were also given lighter moments to keep them in contact with normal life. On 7 September, for instance, they were able to watch the Chilean football team take on Ukraine – and lose 2-1. On another day, they all signed a Chilean flag and sent it up to go to Pope Benedict XVI, who had conveyed his blessing to them. And on 14 September there was a very poignant moment when 29-year-old Ariel Ticona heard that his wife Elizabeth had given birth to their baby daughter. When he was able to see her via the camera link, he asked that she be called Esperanza – Hope.

On 24 September, a landmark was reached – after 50 days trapped underground, they broke all previous records for survival. The drilling, though, was going better than anyone had expected, or admitted for a while. On 9 October, there was a breakthrough. The Schramm T130 drill, brought to the mine from Pennsylvania where it was manufactured, broke through. The next stage was for engineers to examine the shaft. Quickly, they decided to encase the first 300 feet in metal to stop loose stones jamming the mechanism of the capsule, but beyond that they felt it might just work. The clock was ticking faster.

After four days, they were ready to try the Fenix 2 with a human passenger. The original plan was for the medic, Manuel Gonzalez, to descend in the capsule, on a trial run, through an opening that looked no bigger than a standard street drain cover, and then return to the surface. He was strapped in using a bio-harness designed for astronauts which could monitor heart, breathing, temperature and oxygen during the descent, estimated at one hour. As it went up and down, the capsule, decorated in Chile's national colours of red, white and blue, would spin through 360 degrees between 10 and 12 times, so all passengers risked nausea.

Yet when Gonzalez reached the trapped men, their first face-to-face human contact with an outsider in 69 days, caution gave way to a long-suppressed but burning need to escape. So Gonzalez – and later three more assistants sent on the downward journey – stayed in the underground chamber to cope with strapping in passengers and any medical needs, while the first of the miners, 31-year-old Florencio Avalos, began his slow journey up to the surface, where he finally emerged in the early hours of Wednesday 13 October to scenes of near-hysteria.

As one by one, the men came up – journey time was cut with experience from one hour to 25 minutes – family members and the global audience had to pinch themselves. Were these men really alive? Had they really escaped? Could something still go wrong? A last-minute hitch? But, no, in less than 24 hours, they had all returned from the dead. Some fell to their knees. Others staggered into the light, clearly bemused and emotional. Others waved their arms in sheer delight. All hugged their loved ones, and a great big party got under way, not only at the San José mine, not just in Chile, but all around the world. "What had started as a tragedy," pronounced President Piñera, on hand to greet every returnee with a hug, "ends in a blessing." For us all.

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