Chilean miners rescue at Copiapo: A display of Chilean spirit

13 Oct

The first 20 Chilean miners have been successfully rescued from their cave, 2,257 feet underground, and the world’s media has spent the last 24 hours gripped by the spectacle. But what will be the lasting legacy of the San José mine collapse? What will the world remember when they’re reminded of the perseverance of ‘los 33’, trapped in their potential tomb for 69 days?

Probably not the event itself on 5th August when 700,000 tons of rock collapsed and entrapped those mining for copper and gold below. It is also unlikely that people will focus on the cause of the collapse and the mine’s history of instability which had already caused one miner’s death prior to the incident.

If such an incident were to occur in Britain there would be no end of criticism and retribution of the mine company. There would be questions of health and safety; how did the mine roof come to collapse? Why were these men subjected to such danger?

But the story of the miners’ entrapment at Copiapó has been allowed to play out along the lines of human interest and national jubilation. Since 23rd August, when the miners communicated that they were all alive after 17 days without assistance, the media focus was on their miraculous survival and Chile’s technological mission to retrieve them. The Chilean President Sebastián Piñera read the miners’ note on live television and is quoted in the Guardian as saying: “All of Chile is crying with excitement and joy. This country is capable of great things.” There was little reference to the miners’ appalling conditions and little humility that such a calamity had been allowed to occur.

Since the rescue effort started at midnight local time, video footage has displayed each miner’s ecstatic arrival at the surface and blogs worldwide have detailed every development along the way. Images of the second miner Mario Sepulveda’s return to the surface will remain in our collective memory, energetically hugging his wife and numerous rescue workers before handing them rocks gathered at his underground home. This display of sentimentality is what makes Chile so attractive in the eyes of the worldwide audience, and helps mask the severity of the incident which began this saga. The crowd’s chants of “¡Chi! ¡Chi! ¡Chi! ¡Le! ¡Le! ¡Le! ¡Viva Chile!” demonstrate the passion and energy of Chile’s people to an extent that I doubt could be replicated in Britain.

Casting himself as a national hero, Sebastián Piñera was present at six of the first twelve arrivals, embracing the miners and in some cases their wives also. The BBC reporter David Walker described Piñera as the ‘rescue manager chief’ of the event, so involved was he with proceedings. It is difficult to imagine a scene in which David Cameron would embrace these miners and join in their nationalist cheers in the way that seems to come so naturally to the Chilean people.

Florencio Avalos, the first miner to be rescued, embraces the Chilean President

Typical of Chile’s Catholicism, many of the rescued miners sank to their knees in prayer once at the surface while the rescue workers, relatives and government representatives applauded, nodding in recognition of their success. Mario Gomez, the oldest of the miners at 63, was one of those who spent many minutes in kneeled prayer before the press cameras. The fifth man up, Jimmy Sánchez, wrote a letter to his family before his rescue in which he confided: “God wanted me to stay here, I do not know why. Maybe for me to change. And I’ll change a lot.” These acts of homage further encouraged a media focus on the miraculous recovery of the miners rather than questions of why such a thing happened.

After the government predicted that the miners would be stuck until Christmas, and later warned that Phoenix 2 would only transport miners at a rate of one per hour, the smooth rescue mission has earned much media attention. With the transport capsule patriotically painted in Chile’s colours of red, white and blue and moving at such a speed that a miner was rescued every 30 minutes, the operation has converted a national disaster into a victory that British journalists, in this case the BBC’s Andrew Harding, are calling ‘the best rescue in the history of mining’.

As I write this blog post, celebrations are taking place across Chile as the people continue to manifest their happiness at the miners’ safe delivery and their refreshed faith in their President. Perhaps, once the party’s over, the media will return to soberly address the origins of the collapse. For now Piñera is left to bask in his country’s success, and his words are prophetic when he says: “We have lived a magical evening, one we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”

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