Mining has always been dangerous. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, the earth is not a chunk of inert, passive dirt. The earth moves; it heaves and shifts, liquids and gases move through it. Seldom does it shake enough for humans to notice, it usually takes instruments to track the changes. But the earth is alive and it does not rest.
Yet it is from deep inside the earth that our life as we know it is made possible; the substances critical for our society and technology are not found at the surface. To get these minerals, man must descend into the depths —the very bowels of the earth— to bring these materials out. But all the while, as we burrow and dig and tunnel, the earth moves and shifts, gases and liquids move through it.
There is a special meaning about mining to my family. Mother’s cousin married a miner; a decent and hard-working man, living in a town where the mine was the only work. Determined that their only son should not have to be a miner also, they sacrificed everything to send him to college. Graduating in a recession, the only work the new engineer could find was . . . in the mine.
The son’s job was only temporary, but in a mine fire, he was “among the 18 miners trapped in the accident, which took the lives of all of them”. Something inside those two broke that day, but his father was back at work a week later. The family had to eat, and we —the public— needed heat and lights.
Deep, deep beneath the surface where the temperatures soar, man’s efforts are puny in relation to the surrounding forces. In deep water pressures can mount to thousands of pounds, while deep under the earth the pressure is measured in thousands of tons. Human creativity has made mines remarkably safe; pumping gases and water out and fresh air in, monitoring ground movement, electronic alarms, extending lights and phones into the depths. But reality does not change; despite our best efforts mining will never be ’safe’ the way most other jobs are.
So in early 2006 we paid attention when there was a catastrophic explosion in the Sago Mine. The same chunk of coal that took my cousin decades ago now killed a dozen people. But I noticed something different, something that became more apparent a few months later. Just 3 months and three days later, an explosion in a southern West Virginia mine killed 29 employees.
Within hours, the media was publishing safety citations, technical violations, and the entire paperwork history of the mine and its owners. Officials, elected and bureaucratic, blamed the mine operators, owners, and holding corporations. The finger-pointing soon reached a fever pitch, and even the President contributed to the fray.
Concerns about smoke, then gases, kept rescuers out of the mine for days. Days turned into weeks; while the recriminations continued, rescue efforts lagged, rescue turned to recovery, and finally that was canceled. To this day, the public isn’t clear whether the miners’ bodies were recovered or the mine was simply sealed and missing personnel written off.
The recriminations were still being flung in West Virginia when a disaster happened on the opposite side of the world. Not the ‘opposite’ we normally think of in China, but the opposite in South America. In August, exactly four months after the American mine tragedy —in the dead of their winter— a mine in Chile collapsed trapping 33 men inside.
Nobody in their government or Chilean media headlined the mine’s safety record. Without hesitation the Minister of Mining announced they were going to reach the men. If possible, he said, reach them while they were alive; and he promptly ordered every government resource to accomplish that task. In addition, he asked the nation to pray with him, to ask God for the strength to carry out the task before them, ask God’s grace on the miners, and God’s comfort to their families.
From the beginning, they knew it would be the deepest mine rescue ever attempted. The President of Chile, a graduate of Harvard and one of the worlds richest men, asked the nation to pray along with him.
As we know, the rescue was successful. It was not a miracle, it was not luck. It was determination, hard work and persistence. It was faith —a deep, abiding, and open faith. It was technological expertise; probes reached thousands of feet below into specific areas of the mine, finding the men. There were three different plans ran simultaneously, and none failed; one merely succeeded before the others.
The issue isn’t about how Chile pulled this off by itself; it had assistance from contractors, organizations, and governments all over the globe. The issue is that Chile pulled it off: pulled out every stop, set goals and then exceeded them. Chile took risks for its people.
Nobody was ’saving’ Wall Street friends, in Chile it was working men being rescued. As each man came out —reeking from months without sanitary facilities— their nation’s President, his wife, the Minister of Mines, and every other Chilean official who will be important greeted them and hugged them. Nor did these officials treat it as public relations; they were up all the freezing desert night, stayed through the next day, and into the next cold night.
There may be fault-finding, but not now. Now is the time to rescue these people; to get them to the surface, to be with their families and see the sunlight again. Strong, brave, competent, and fearless. My country used to be like that. I miss it.