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A moment to savour

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Over the past year or two I have been deeply moved by images of human tragedy and tales of incredible survival around the world. There has been the moving story of Haiti, with persons found alive long after it was felt that no other human being could possibly have been alive. There were other tragedies around the world caused by floods and earthquakes, but none has, perhaps, touched me like the Chilean Mine disaster.{{more}} On Tuesday evening I was glued to my television set looking at what was really a fascinating story being unravelled. It was the beginning of the end but the story had long caught the attention of people around that world, from August 5 when a rock fall trapped 33 miners underground. A period of uncertainty followed, with fears that the miners might have been dead. This uncertainty was removed on August 22, seventeen days after when contact was established through a note attached to a probe that reached the miners below the surface. The news on the note that all was well set the pattern for a series of activities that led to continuing communication with the trapped miners and to providing them with meals, dominoes, books, letters, tape recordings from their families and a camera that allowed the rescuers, their families and the miners to see each other. The big issue that emerged then was the ability to reach the miners, with early fears that they might not have been reached before Christmas. The breakthrough that came on October 12 when one of the drills reached the spot where the miners were located brought hope to everyone.

Tuesday, October 12, when the first of the Miners reached the surface was a moment to be savoured, and the whole world focused on what was really an unbelievable moment. But we are dealing not only with an incredible moment that saw the arrival of the first miner to the surface. The story of the survival of 33 men in a confined space will be a fascinating one that is still to be told. To be in a confined space for 68-69 days, in a hot, humid, dusty atmosphere, not knowing at first if they were going to be able to establish contact with the world outside the mine, and having made contact, not knowing when they were going to be rescued. The dynamics at play, the kind of relationships that developed, the discipline and the leadership that had to have emerged to allow things to go the way they did will eventually be told. The efforts that were made by the organisers of the rescue effort to keep the men happy and to lift their spirits must not be underestimated. The provision of dominoes, creating the conditions that allowed them to see the Chilean football team at play were all to be admired. (I am not sure what football game they saw but that could easily have dampened their spirits, don’t you think, or perhaps it didn’t matter then!).

Then the issue of the families, knowing that their relatives were safe but not knowing when they were going to be united, but with the hope that the mechanisms for the rescue mission would work the way it was hoped that they would. During that period of entrapment a baby named Hope, fathered by one of the trapped miners, was born, a marriage proposal was made, other pledges were given, and a girlfriend got precedent over a wife of 20 odd years in being among those to greet one of the men. This is, of course, a human story and that is part of the reality of human livelihood. The remark of one mother when she saw her entrapped son on TV for the first time during the ordeal described it as being terrible. She said it was like a birth but worse than the first one.

All of this came to a climax on Tuesday evening when the first miner reached the surface. Millions around the world must have been glued to their television sets to experience that moment, a triumph of humanity. For some of the men, their faith would have kept them strong, for others, they acquired faith in the process. One miner, the second to be rescued, I believe, said: “I was with God and I was with the devil. They fought and God won.” There are so many lessons to be learnt by this whole episode. Where does power reside? For those trapped below it must have dawned on them that power lies elsewhere as they wondered if they would be able to communicate the fact of their survival to those above ground and having made that contact their ability to get to them. This is a story of human survival that will be analysed and lessons learnt as we begin to hear the true story of what kept the men together. As I end this article, the 28th miner has been rescued. So far things have worked smoothly, and it is believed that the full rescue would be concluded later this evening (Wednesday). Amazing! This is a fascinating story of the human spirit and what it is capable of doing, even under extreme circumstances.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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