Today, while looking through old notebooks, I came across a note I wrote six years ago. Late in the evening of October 12, 2010. The note, dated October 12, 2010 and marked with the time I wrote it 10:28 p.m. read, “I am deliriously happy with tears in my eyes. They’re bringing the miners to the surface.” I knew, instantly, the subject of the note, even though there was no more specificity in what I wrote. It reminded me of a post I wrote last year a few days after the fifth anniversary of the rescue of thirty-three men (thirty-two Chilean and one Bolivian miners) who finally returned to the surface after sixty-nine days trapped in the mine. In last year’s post, I recalled the flood of emotions that the rescue attempt and its ultimate success triggered. Today’s discovery of that note brought back all those emotions, too. But my memory of exactly what happened, other than my emotional reaction to it, was a little fuzzy. So I did some research to try to recall details about the event that touched me so deeply.
The story that ended with such spectacular joy began with a monstrous cave-in on August 5, 2010. The San José mine, located in the Atacama Desert about forty-five miles north of Copiapó, Chile, was an old copper and gold mine whose owners had a history of breaches of safety regulations. A number of miners had died in the years before the August 2010 calamity and the company had been accused of ignoring miners’ complaints about unsafe conditions.
Two groups of workers were in the mine when the cave-in occurred. A group nearest the mine’s entrance escaped immediately after the cave-in, but thirty-three men were trapped. Initially, the men tried to escape through ventilation shafts, but the ladders required by mining safety codes were missing. Additional ground movement made the ventilation shafts unusable by rescuers. The men organized into groups to take care of specific survival tasks during their ordeal. They rationed emergency survival supplies intended to last for only two or three days so that they lasted two weeks, instead.
While the trapped men collaborated with one another in their efforts to survive and cope with the horror of being trapped below ground and with no assurances they would be found, rescuers worked feverishly to find where they were in the mine and rescue them. Several boreholes were drilled in an attempt to locate the men. On August 19, two weeks into the rescue operation, one of the drills reached a space where they believed the miners were trapped but encountered no signs of life. On August 22, the eighth borehole broke through into the miners’ location. The men, who for days had heard sounds of drills approaching them, had written notes to send up to rescuers. When the drill broke through, they attached one such note to the drill tip with insulation tape. The note read: “Estamos bien en el refugio los 33” (meaning, roughly, in English, “We are well in the shelter, the 33”).
Between the time the drill reached the men and their rescue, food and water was sent down to them, but by the time they were finally brought to the surface in mid-October, they had lost an average of eighteen pounds each. In addition to strain on their bodies, their ordeal took its toll on their minds. From what I have read, only their recognition that they had to work together as a cohesive team kept them from utterly cracking, psychologically, during the more than two months they spent underground.
The shift foreman, Luis Urzúa, is credited with leading the men through the nightmare with sensitivity and wit. I read somewhere that he said, after he came to the surface (the last man out), he said, “It’s been a bit of a long shift.” I think the stories I heard during the ordeal, about how the men were dealing with the crisis facing them, may have been the source of my exceedingly emotional response to their final rescue. When they started being lifted to the surface, I felt as if these were members of my family who were being saved. And when Urzúa finally left the mine, I was overjoyed. I wanted all the people who worked for those long weeks on the rescue to get as much recognition as the miners, though I knew the spotlight late that night and into the early morning rightfully belonged to the miners.
As I think about this event that weighed on my mind for the entire time the men were trapped, I cannot even begin to imagine how much more heavily it weighed on the people directly affected by it. I felt emotional pain by proxy. I think I want to read the words of someone who actually went through the entire episode. I am sure there are good books about it. Maybe I’ll find one. I suspect films have been made about it, too. Maybe I’ll find one of them, as well.