Los 33 – the rescue of the miners in San Jose Mine

So, a week on from the dramatic and extremely high profile rescue of the 33 miners in the San Jose mine, the media attention here in Chile is still huge. Today I went to La Moneda Palace in the city centre of Santiago to see the Fenix 2 capsule which was used in the rescue. It is now on display outside the government palace along with two photos blown up onto huge posters showing the capsule bringing up the first miner and also the capsule underground in the workshop area from which they were rescued. It was all very well orchestrated and there was a long line of people waiting patiently to have their photos taken in front of the capsule. I couldn’t be bothered with the wait and so just took some photos nearby and then watched the spectacle. I must say though, that seeing the capsule fairly close made me realise just how small it actually is. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be inside it for between 10 and 15 minutes while going through pitch darkness for 622m of solid rock…

The Fenix 2 capsule on display outside La Moneda in Santiago

But let’s go back to last Wednesday, 13 October – a day where Chile dominated news headlines across the globe. And another rare thing is that it was for a good news story and not the usual drama or bad news that we are so used to. It was news about hope and hard work and team effort and patriotism and families being reunited – for once the world was focused on a story that had a happy ending. This certainly doesn’t happen very often. It has been quite amazing to see how Chileans have rallied around this story. For the 69 days that they were trapped underground there were all sorts of stories and efforts going on across the country to give the miners and those above ground support and encouragement. And then there were celebrations across the country when the rescue was carried out so successfully. The patriotism has been incredible to see.

But for me, the main thing I think I will take away from this whole saga, is just how unpredictable and fragile life is. These men all went underground on 5 August for what they thought would be a routine shift of 8 hours, however they only emerged 69 days later as men who survived 17 days with nothing and then another 52 days knowing that people were trying to rescue them, but not knowing how long it would take before they saw their families (and daylight) again. From the stories that have emerged so far, all the miners have obviously come out of their ordeal changed men. Some of them are now going to marry their long-term partners and many others have re-evaluated their lives in other ways. They definitely had a lot of time to think down there… But even without having this kind of an ordeal, we can all learn from it and realise that we can’t take the people we love for granted and that we have to appreciate everything we have, even the tiniest things like being able to get up in the morning and see the sun and hug our loved ones. This is going to sound like a cliché – but we have to make the most of every moment we have, as we just don’t know what the next one holds…

Watching nearly all the miners coming out of the capsule, every time I saw them hug their wives, girlfriends, parents or children I felt a little pang of wishing I could give my own family a hug right then and there. It was definitely a bit of a homesick day for me. As much as I love traveling and living in another country with all its new adventures and experiences, I do miss home a lot. This day just made me think of my family that little bit more than usual.

Many people have said that before this story, Chile was often only known internationally for Pinochet’s dictatorship. The miner’s story has definitely changed that and has given the world a new vision of this long, thin country on the edge of South America. It has been an incredible advertisement for the country and the government had made the most of the ‘marketing’ opportunities it has presented (this has lead to much criticism of Piñera, the Chilean President who has been said to have taken the marketing just a little too far). But it did show that Chile can coordinate and pull off such a high tech and world-first kind of operation with very little assistance from the rest of the world. Basically the main assistance from outside was from NASA in terms of helping the miners deal with living in such a confined space and how to organise their days underground. So yes, the whole story has shown Chile in a fairly good light internationally. However now that the rescue is complete, the government needs to look at the accident that happened in the first place and the very poor safety record that small and medium sized mines in Chile have. Last year 49 miners died and just two days after the rescue a miner died in another mining accident – but this story only made the headlines here for the briefest moment. Obviously no one wanted it to detract from the image portrayed through the San Jose rescue.

Lastly, I wonder what is going to happen to these miners from here on. Overnight they have become national heroes and they are wanted for TV and radio shows, there is talk about books and movie deals and visits to watch footballs games in Europe etc…They are celebrities, whether they want it or not and I wonder how they are going to deal with all the attention. For instance, when one miner went home from the hospital on Friday, there were loads of journalists at his home, but when he spoke to them all he just looked drained and tired and I think he just wanted to be alone with his family. They may all be remarkably physically fit, but they still have a lot to deal with emotionally and I hope that they can manage to get back to some sense of normal life.

And so ends yet another dramatic story in Chile in 2010. Earthquakes, a tsunami, 200 years of independence and a dramatic mine rescue…I wonder what the last 2 months of so of this year hold in store for Chile. Hopefully nothing nearly as dramatic as what has already happened…

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