The day arrives when the world awaits the most pleasant news of my lifetime. Despite the delay in 3 hours from the schedule the actual rescue begins at 11 pm instead of 8 pm on 12 October, 2010. It had been 68 days since the Chilean miners were trapped 700 mts below the ground in the copper and gold mine.
The saga had started on 5 August when the roof of the mine had collapsed. No contact with the miners was there and it was just a wild guess if they were alive, until Aug 22 , when it was discovered that they were indeed alive and surviving on a tiny ration of milk, eating two spoonful of tuna and a biscuit each, 48 hourly, for the previous 17 days.
The task to drill shaft into the rocky earth’s crust was a huge challenge and in two days a hole of the diameter of a grapefruit was made to get in touch with these brave bunch of 33. In the mean time they were supplied with food , other necessities and contact with their loved ones through letters and camera through this narrow tube.
Next was the gigantic task to drill a larger diameter 700 metre long tunnel to make the rescue possible. It was estimated that the rescue tunnel would take upto the end of December, for these men to emerge from the mine. A mere idea had made me shiver not only two months ago but every time I followed it up on net or through TV news.Many of their loved ones chose to camp on the surface right above the mine until their men were rescued.
The red, white and blue capsule called Phoenix which was a metallic cage developed in assistance with NASA, was tested twice with no one inside, as it faced a twisty uncertain ride. On its journey from the bowel of the earth to the surface, the capsule had to twist up to a dozen times through the curves of 28 inches (78 cm). Video inspections showed the shaft’s lower walls to be firm, smooth rock, eliminating the need to line them, which would have taken days and risked blockages.
Before anyone was brought up, a rescuer was lowered down. He entered the capsule to the applause from rescue workers. President Pinera wishesd him luck.
This was the start of the rescue proper. The capsule was loaded with oxygen tanks. As the capsule hits the floor of the mine and the cage opened (the world witnessed this through the cameras ). It was estimated, it will take about an hour per miner and about 36 hours to bring them all up. And instead of the predicted two days it took them merely 22 hours to come up..And instead of the predicted 4 months it took them just over two months to see the sun light, feel the fresh breeze and the embrace of their waiting loved ones after 10 weeks of this heroic ordeal .
Once the Hugs were over, the newly arrived rescuer started instructing the miners on what to do.
A very well designed, well rehearsed rescue plan was set up. The men were classified as three groups—the able, the weak and the strong. The order of rescue was already decided and conveyed to the miners. They were rescued in that order with perfect disciplie and order down below. The first group of healthy able men were lifted to test the rescue plan.
This was followed by the weakest. The strongest who had to wait for almost a day to hit the surface.
With each rescue my pulse wained and waxed. It had to go unfailed till the very end. And to the very determination of the world, it indeed went unfaltered right through to the very end.
The first decision taken was to decide who would be the last to be evacuated. And Luis Urzua,was that man. A shift foreman, he had become a hero for commanding the team on miners down below. He was the brain behind having the miners able to survive the first 17 uncertain days of the miners when the world above had no contact with them. It is told that he managed a sense of order and purpose underground. He had volunteered to be the last to be rescued.
“We had to be strong, all the workers in the mine fulfilled their roles, as journalists, as spokesmen, and we worked hard for our own rescue,” said Urzua, when asked how he managed to keep the 33 men organised.
Florencio Ávalos, 31, was the first miner to arrive up in the rescue capsule. His brother and a brother in law too were with him down below. Florencio had been acting as cameraman and second-in-command to shift leader Luis Urzúa. Florencio Avalos entered the capsule under the camera’s eye and reached the surface in the longest 20 minutes of my life. And the f irst miner came out. So strong and confident, as if nothing had happened. Man of steel nerves. He had co-led the shift of the miners along with Urzua for 68 days, fully composed.
The next turn to go down was a paramedic and as he exit the second miner got in. A union activist he used his video commentaries to criticise the owners of the mine. His wife described her husband as a born leader. “He’s a braveheart. He is never ashamed to say anything to anyone… He never trusted this mine.”
And then the third, a 52-year-old former soldier who liked mending cars. His brother said he had a strong character formed by his time in the military. He was credited with maintaining discipline in the mine.
The fourth to arrive was a Bolivian, the only non-Chilean in the group. He had only been working at the mine for four days when the accident happened. There was some thought of making the Bolivian the first to go up. But he was bumped back for political reasons.
“We can’t put him first because then the Bolivians will think we are using him, as a test of the system”
Chile and Bolivia have witnessed a long animosity,( much more than the Indo-Pak love hate relationship) which goes back all the way to the war of the Pacific in the late 19th century. There are hopes that this ordeal may finally be the reason to forget this rift for all times to come.
Someone had tweeted during his rescue: ”We are waiting for you brother Carlos Mamani. You are now a Chilean.
Next to him, the fifth was the youngest of the lot.-an 18 year old who worked as an environmental assistant.
Those following these, fit and healthy were the weakest —one being a diabetic, another with pneumonia.
Then one after the other came out the miners, it soon became a pleasant routine and I lost count.
However, it was still not monotonous . Each ascent had its own charm and thrill. Each time the capsule Phoenix ascended on to the Earth’s surface, it’s cargo was saluted by a siren and an applause from the onlookers whether on the location or sitting thousands of miles across oceans watching through their televisions.
Finally after a 22 hour long minute to minute trail, came the moment when the last miner was ascending to the surface. The first couple wiped their tears of joy as the scale showed it neared the zero meter depth. Cheers grew louder and there was ecstasy in the aroma. Each eye twinkled.
A hero was ascending to his pinnacle of glory. Luis Alberto Urzua was hoisted to safety in a joyous climax to a flawless rescue that captivated the world.He was wrapped in the Chile flag the way a newly born baby is wrapped in a ‘receiving cloth’.
“We have done what the entire world was waiting for,” Mr Urzua told President Pinera as he walked out fit and fine from the cage, “The 70 days that we fought so hard were not in vain. We had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing.”
He was hugged tight by the President exactly the way a mother holds affectionately her newborn baby.
The president told him: “You are not the same and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration. Go hug your wife and your daughter.”
Some of the heroes waved Chilean flags, some waved their hands, some dropped to their knees in front of God, one chanted for Chile and then all of them embraced their loved ones, who anxiously waited for their first glance.
Each brave man wore fresh green shirt with a Chilean flag, each one looked so radiant, handsome, clean shaven, well dressed, in dark sun glasses and so macho. Seemed as if they had a saloon down below. The dignity with which they were brought up is unprecedented.
It reminds me of a beautiful quote by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus:
Remember this-that there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life.
Indeed the will to uphold dignity of every mankind irrespective of his altitude, is an ideal worth striving for and worth dying for.
President Piniera like a true leader stood outside the hole, all day and night, embracing each one of the hero with a tight and warm embrace. He remarked ,”We had promised to look until we found them. We can feel proud to be Chilean.”
The president and his wife personally oversaw the rescue of the miners. He claimed the Chilean government sought the best technology when the tragedy first occurred. Time and again he kept on praising the faith and bravery of the miners.
He said it is the marriage of the best technology and human endeavour , that had made “this miracle possible” and that ”will not be the same people they were before the accident”, and was sure the people of Chile were the same.
The country has learnt from the challenges, he said. The speech became more wide-ranging, as clad in a red jacket with his white hard hat set in front of him, and his wife stood beside him – said he hoped Chile will “move mountains”, becoming the first South American country to defeat poverty.
The president said he wanted to thank God for being with the men all through the last 68 days.
On being asked by a journalist about the cost of its’ operation he retorts, “It doesn’t matter how much it cost. It was worth the expenditure.” When on insistence of the journalist’s lead question: Millions? He said, ”Many many millions” with a streak of simplicity on his face.
Along with the family members, and the the first couple stood the 1,500 journalists from 39 nations to capture this unprecedented act enabling it to glare on each and every TV screen across the globe.
No-one in recorded history has survived as long trapped underground. This becomes an epic for all times to come which compelled a tiny me to transfix my eyes on to the TV screen for 22 hours, without a blink.
My brother sends a comment on my FB status on the rescue: Miracle is some thing which happens when it is not expected and when people have given up hope.The Chilean story is a story of hope, endurance, courage and dignity. This reminds me of my junior school motto – “In all things be Men”.
They were the most contented 22 hours of my life. Chile is transformed in many ways- from a Chile of Pinochet to a Chile of Piniera, Urzua and the 32 brave men.
My world has changed too, in one more sense—in the sense that a middle aged woman like me has fallen instantly in love with a macho called CHILE.
Oh I love you Chile…
13 October 2010