The 33 men pulled up from the depths of Chile's San Jose mine this week looked strong and proud: victors, not victims. Their survival was a marvel that enlisted drillers, engineers, doctors, geologists, scientists, psychiatrists, bureaucrats, clergy and volunteers from around the world.
But the men saved themselves, too. They had the hard, hidden part: living with isolation, hunger and despair for 69 days, trapped in a small, dark space 2,000 feet below the ground that tried to crush them.
They told reporters yesterday that the first 17 days were hardest. They had no word from the surface or proof they were being searched for. Some of the men squabbled, which they have made a pact never to speak about. They made jokes about cannibalism, as they watched themselves starve. After 17 days, the refuge chamber into which they had scrambled to escape began to feel as close as a tomb.
Now, the men — who may always be known as Los Treinta y Tres—can look ahead to sunnier days. They have been offered free vacations in the Aegean Islands. World famous soccer teams want them to visit, cheer and pass on their miraculous pluck. Don Francisco wants them on Sabado Gigante, the most popular TV show in the world. Movie and television projects were being pitched as soon as the men began to be pulled out of the earth.
Chile's president, Sebastian Pinera, embraced each miner as he emerged and said, "You're not the same after this and neither are we. We will never forget this." I think that "we" embraces the world. Millions of families, including ours, got our children out of bed to watch the men rise from the earth, wave, sing and blow kisses. We told our children, "Remember this night whenever you think something is impossible."
President Pinera says he also knows that this magnificent achievement stemmed from what may be reckless disregard of mine safety. "Never again," he says, "will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San Jose mine."
It is tempting to say the rescue of the miners, like the landing on the moon, or the return of Apollo 13, shows that humans can do anything if we just work together. Landing on the moon, or rescuing 33 miners, is a daunting but direct enterprise. They have start points and finish lines. The trials of war, famine, terrorism, poverty, global warming, joblessness and loneliness twist and turn.
But this week, it was good to be reminded that skill, courage and dedication can also move the earth. When 33 men were buried, people uncovered strength they never knew was inside. Failure was not an option. This week, we were all Chilean. Viva!