Surviving against all odds

The 33 Chilean miners trapped 700 metres below ground in the collapsed mine in San Jose are living as close to earthly hell as I can realistically imagine. It is just terrifying to think what they must be going through now that the initial euphoria of being found alive has passed and the realisation that they are going to be stuck in a small, hot, dark space for up to four months becomes a reality. How is it possible to get through such an ordeal?

By Iman Kurdi

Published: Sun 29 Aug 2010, 9:01 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:41 AM

The video footage released by the Chilean government of just five minutes of the 45-minute video made by the miners is both touching and awe-inspiring. These men have already shown an indomitable spirit, phenomenal organisation and discipline, as well as faith, determination and optimism in getting this far.

They had the foresight and strength to limit their food to two spoons of canned tuna a day and a little milk. They had the ingenuity to drain water from the radiators of digging machines. They had the social sense to convene a meeting every day to hold a consultation and ensure they are all agreed on the course of action. They have divided up the small space in which they are confined so that there is a prayer area, an area to rest in and a place to meet and entertain themselves. They pass the time by playing cards and dominoes. When they spoke to the outside world, they sent messages of love and hope to their families and showed that they fervently believe they will be rescued. Their morale was even strong enough to sing a full-blown and hearty rendition of the Chilean national anthem. In a word they show the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

The Chilean government has gone all out to save the miners, though of course questions are being asked about safety standards in the country’s hundreds of copper and gold mines. Mining is quite simply a horrible profession. It may not be quite as soul-breaking as the images of coal-miners of old that come to mind but it remains back-breaking and dangerous work. In Chile alone an average of 34 people die every year in mining accidents, and you don’t need to look far in the news to find examples of mining accidents elsewhere.

Their families too have been unremitting in their support, setting up what has been termed Camp Hope and pitching their tents right up there at the head of the mine to be as close to their loved ones as they can.

But how come it will take four months to get them out? It’s at times like these that you realise just how limited modern technology is. They are able to drill three boreholes to the miners: one to provide food and supplies, another to provide ventilation and the last for communication. The largest one is the diameter of a grapefruit. Through these boreholes they have been able to send not just the cameras, water and food rations but are also about to send down a specially designed entertainment system that will enable them to watch films. Psychologists are deciding on what they should watch, apparently great football matches are on the list. But getting them out will take months, because as far as I can understand it, digging a tunnel wide enough to haul a man out of it 700 metres into the rock-face is something that can only be done at a crawling pace.

How their mental and physical health will fare over the coming months is the greatest worry and here everyone has been brought in, from NASA to psychologists, the best brains are working out how to meet this phenomenal challenge. Special lighting is being devised so that the miners can have a semblance of night and day. Their correspondence with their families is being monitored to ensure that they stay positive. Their food and drink intake is being watched and programmed much as it is with astronauts on a space mission. The difference is that astronauts are in peak fitness and are tested and trained for living in confined conditions over a long period of time, whereas even though some of these men have been trained in survival techniques, they do not have the fitness of astronauts.

This latest mining accident shows both the best and the worst face of humankind. The fact that the miners are alive after more than three weeks is both a miracle and testimony to the power of faith and the human spirit. However, the fact that they are trapped at all is not just an accident of fate. Yes accidents do happen but accidents like this one could be avoided if stringent safety regulations are maintained. The San Jose mine was inspected only last month and safety issues identified. There were warnings that the roof was unstable and had not been reinforced after an earlier collapse and yet it was allowed to continue to operate. What happens in the future both in terms of preventing this kind of accident happening again and in terms of getting the miners out alive and well will be the true test of President Pinera’s will.

Iman Kurdi is an Arab writer based in Nice, France. For comments, write to

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