You are in a small hole inside the very bowels of a mountain, with thousands of feet of rock between you and daylight. Then the mountain violently convulses, and you are irrevocably sealed in.
Thirty-three men were thusly trapped in the 2010 Chilean mine saga, chronicled in Hector Tobar’s book Deep Down Dark. He evokes well what it must have been like; though we pampered Eloi can in truth hardly imagine it.
The word “miracle” is used a lot (including in Tobar’s subtitle). I don’t like the word, implying something supernatural, which of course doesn’t exist (if it did, it would be natural). Epicurus, shown pictures of sailors who prayed during storms, and survived, asked, “Where are the pictures of those who prayed but drowned?” If you think God saved someone from a disaster – why did he cause the disaster? And what of those who perished?
Some of those Chilean miners credited God for their rescue (though not for the disaster). Of course it was actually the tremendous efforts of human beings who achieved it. Those miners were from the bottom of society, but their lives mattered enough that others would, almost literally, move a mountain for them. A great testament to human solidarity in an age when cynics cast people as selfish and uncaring.
But calling this “miraculous” is understandable. This mine’s safety picture was, well, not the greatest, by far. And the mountain’s internal structure had been undermined by a century of tunneling, so when it finally imploded, it did so cataclysmically, immuring the miners behind a stone megalith the weight of two Empire State Buildings. Yet not one of the thirty-three was even injured.
Those outside could not know anyone down there was alive; it seemed unlikely, and reaching them anyhow impossible. Initial rescue efforts were derisory, with the mine’s owners missing in action.
However, Chile had a newly elected president, Sebastián Piñera, not one of the customary lefties, but a former businessman; and he got involved, also not customary in such situations. It was a big risk for him; a tragic outcome seemed highly likely. But, told that a rescue was at least theoretically conceivable, Piñera set in motion a gigantic effort, which ultimately became an international project, tantamount to a moon shot.
It took over two weeks just to ascertain the miners’ survival and location. Imagine what it was like in that dark hole for those weeks, with almost no food, and rescue very unlikely. And, when finally contacted, the miners were told, “We’ll have you out by Christmas.” This was in August.
But in the event – with Americans arriving on the job – the rescue was achieved on October 13, 69 days in. Nothing like this had ever been done before. They basically had to invent the means, on the spot.
What impressed me most in this story was what did not happen. No “Lord of the Flies” here. Now this was a pretty rough bunch of men; not your country club metrosexuals; in just about the most desperate situation imaginable. But civilization is not some thin veneer coating our animal selves; the men did not lose their humanity. One pair almost came to blows, but hugged and made up before that happened. Another pair later did exchange a few blows. That was it.
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a famous experiment wherein students role-playing as prison guards soon became genuinely brutal toward the “prisoners.” Zimbardo saw this as showing not that people are inherently bad, but that they respond to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Yet why did those students in a lab behave so badly – but not the miners trapped and facing death?
I’m reminded also of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, inspired by his concentration camp experience; there too, circumstances wherein you might expect people to lose their “do unto others” scruples. But many did not, as Frankl relates. Instead, the extreme circumstances gave them purpose and meaning.