Saturday, August 28, 2010

Deep in Chile: A Human Odyssey

A few weeks ago, when I first learned of the cave-in of a small mine in Chile, I didn’t really bother to pay that much attention. I figured any survivors were doomed and, in any case, it wasn’t that big of a disaster. Mines collapse somewhere in the world all the time. The recent floods in Pakistan were far worse in terms of the sheer size of the human scale.

But, meaningful "size" is not always just in terms of quantitative numbers and distances measured in many miles. Certain human qualities sometimes take on an enormous size in strict terms of human awareness and are measured in but a few hundred square feet.

In recent days, I have taken greater notice of events. It has become a heroic story in my mind, still unfolding. But, for me, it seems miraculous not only that anyone survived almost a half-mile down like that but that they managed to get to this particular location were they could be found. And then to have the animal instinct in the very higher human form to wait for two weeks in darkness.

I try to put myself in that perspective.

Studying events, it seems the area where 33 survivors (initially believed to be 34) could possibly have survived was detected rather quickly, within 24 hours or so of the mine’s collapse. The search efforts were aided by the fact that all the men made it into a specially constructed shelter designed to withstand such calamities (great computer-generated video of the shelter is included in this report).

No one was able to reach the miners to begin with or even confirm that they were alive. The initial reports said they “could” have made it to the shelter. There was no contact. Early efforts to reach where everyone thought the trapped miners might be were frustrated by further collapses within the mine. Wasting little time, Chilean relief workers began drilling at least nine holes from the surface within 3 days of the collapse aimed at reaching the supposed location of the trapped miners. The first of the drilled holes missed the shelter, however; by this time the miners (still uncontacted and conditions unknown) had been underground for 13 days.

This was a huge deal in Chile. The nation relies upon mining for much of its economy. So, even though it was a comparatively small mine involving some three dozen miners, it was politically impossible for Chilean President
Sebastian Pinera to remain out of his country. He canceled a foreign relations trip to Columbia.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the rescue workers, the trapped miners kept their wits about them, organized themselves, and waited for help they were not sure was coming. They made one attempt to escape but it was unsuccessful. After that, it was just a matter of faith and hope, which is why I find the story so inspiring. Not only were the relief workers frantically attempting every possibility as quickly as they could, but the trapped miners
mustered extraordinary resiliency in a cramped and almost hopeless situation.

Relief workers did not know for sure there were any survivors until two weeks after the disaster when the trapped miners managed to send a note to the surface. Unitl then they kept working anyway...only on the desire to reach the safety chamber below.

Meanwhile, I try to imagine what was going on the minds of all these survivors down there with limited provisions and resources for those two weeks. Not knowing for sure if you’d be found. The miners worked as a team and kept their spirits up in the face of all that darkness and distance and silence. To be so focused in the face of that is the essence of inspired living, a story filled with humanity and hope.

As incredible as it is, the story of their very survival and discovery after two weeks trapped 2300 feet below the surface now shifts to
the superhuman effort to get them out of there. Keeping the spirits of the miners up is critical. As of today they do not know it will take up to four months to get them out of their confined but apparently secure space.

The miners have been encouraged through contact above to
sing songs and engage in other group activities to stabilize their collective mental state. A primary approach that is being attempted is to consider the miners as astronauts and NASA has been called in to assist with their well-being. Meanwhile, Chilean authorities are dealing with them as if they were inside a submarine on an extended voyage. Since there is no real precedent for miners surviving for months underground after a mine collapse, these metaphors help to frame the relief efforts from a psychological point of view. It seems the best way for the miners to frame their lives now is in terms of an odyssey.

The 33 miners are trapped in a 500 square foot space. It is 85 degrees down there. There is adequate but limited ventilation. There is no toilet. Obviously, a critical piece of that survival effort is communication between the miners and the world far above. On Friday, the miners were able to send video messages up for the first time.

These heroing images have a haunting quality in their silver, gray tones. But, after two weeks of existing pretty much on faith alone that they would be found by those above, they serve for me as a the symbol of unsentimental hope. They are down there. They are fighting the darkness, the isolation, the heat, the stench, the desire for freedom, the need for their friends and families, the challenge of just getting along in their cramped conditions. The images have a very distant quality to me. From a half-mile below us, humanity struggles and somewhat thrives.

Of all the images I've seen so far, nothing struck me more poignantly as that of the one at the top of this post. Viewers silhouetted against a miner's face on a giant screen. The many so distant from the isolated person depicted by that camera lowered a half-mile down.

This image is completely relevant for our times. In a sense we are all trapped in a collapsed world of comparative darkness. Our economic circumstances are uncertain. Our political situation is tense to say the least. The pressures of daily life in the form of money and power and, at times, the disorienting pace of change often saps our spirit. But, then I think of these 33 survivors; their physical plight mirroring the spiritual plight of the entire western world. Somehow, they have managed to keep it together. They have managed to be found. Now, they must manage the long wait to freedom. In a metaphysical sense, how is that different from any of us?

I think of them today, drawing inspiration from their incredible story. In my empathy for their condition and the agony of their families, I find an affirmation of Being that I want to claim for myself and convey to others. Is there anything more human than that?

Very Late Note: All miners were rescued on October 14. Safe and sound and ahead of schedule.

1 comment:

Clint said...

Great story Keith!