Deep Down Dark: The Chilean Miners’ Rescue

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.

UnknownThirty-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?

Unknown-1Some 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.

Piñera

Piñera

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.

Unknown-2Psychologist 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?

Frankl

Frankl

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.

True, human beings can, and sometimes do, behave horribly. But mostly we do not. And the record of history shows we are getting better over time. imagesThis is why I am a humanist, and an optimist.

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4 Responses to “Deep Down Dark: The Chilean Miners’ Rescue”

  1. frank bath Says:

    The Zimbardo experiment is greatly contested of course.

  2. don Says:

    No one forced them to work thousands of feet below the ground in an earthquake prone region of the world. Human greed causes that.
    Men locate millions of people right on major faults and then blame god when the earthquakes happen. The same thing when it comes to volcanoes, flood zones and building right on the ocean in hurricane zones. God never said he would remove problems but give a person strength to endure. How do we know the men who prayed were not helped to endure, whether there is a god or not?
    To each his own. No one has full knowledge of everything in the universe.

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Greed? How about need to earn a living to feed their families. Humankind uses and needs the stuff we mine out of the ground.

  4. don Says:

    I guess greed can be in the eye of the beholder. You are right that we need jobs for people and we need materials from the earth. I considered it greed because the company was notorious for running unsafe mines and would not spend the money to make it safe. Instead they paid extra money to get people to take on the extra risk. There are reportedly 883 other mines in the region to provide copper and minerals and jobs. I also agree with you on the use of term of miracles. It was the intelligence and humanity of those invovled that brought about their rescue.

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