Extraordinary story of hope and endurance

2011-07-20 00:00

OCTOBER 12, 2010, will be talked about for a long time in the mining industry the world over. The focus of attention on that day, which saw engineers from various parts of the world working tirelessly, was the attempt to free 33 Chilean miners who got trapped 700 metres at the bottom of St Jose copper mine, in the Atacama Desert of Chile.

With safety measures being questioned after mine owners failed to provide the rescue teams with clear maps detailing escape routes and other safety measures, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera stepped in, and started calling for technological help from other mining giants.

It would take more than two months to save the miners who had to survive on very limited food supply, no lighting or fresh water. Towards the second half of their entrapment, they were already surviving on a spoon of tuna each per day, and starvation had started to play mind games with them, reminding some of the story of the football team who ended up eating team-mates who perished in a plane crash not far from Chile. But they organised themselves in a way that would maintain order, electing group leaders who would monitor and give direction towards their daily living style, while waiting for rescue.

The drilling process to try to get to the trapped men was hampered not only by the solid rock, but also by the mine owners, who were discovered to have been flouting the safety regulations for years.

The families of the miners, and scores of other people who are not related to them, camped at the rescue site, never losing hope that the trapped men would be rescued. And against all odds, the miners were saved, all of them. It was necessary to see to it that their eyesight was not affected by sunlight, after months of being trapped underground, and doctors and psychologists were brought in to keep them in good shape for the Phoenix rescue capsule, built to specifications developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and the Chilean navy.

It is a worthwhile read, and those wanting details of the rescue operation and the miners lives underground should get a copy of The 33.

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