Those last fifteen minutes must’ve been the longest. Compressed in a chute, you are leaving the place that had been your refuge but was almost your grave. For the first time in more than two months, you are completely alone, away from the men who possibly saved your life, who kept you going, the only people on earth who can understand what you’ve endured. For sixty-nine days, you’ve been in an uncertain stand-off with death, and now…now, you only have fifteen minutes to go. Fifteen minutes until the rest of your life.
From the second the disaster occurred and for sixteen days thereafter, the families of the Chilean miners had nothing but hope. That’s a long time. Imagine the prayers, the bargaining, the rationalizations of just how it really was possible that your husband, your father, your brother, your son had survived. It could happen, sure. But the hours passed. The days crept by. The third day…the fifth…the tenth…the fifteenth…the sixteenth. The families must have been told to prepare for the worst. Imagine picturing your husband, your son, dead and alone, a half mile beneath your feet.
And then, on the seventeenth day, the miracle. The note said, “We are well and in the shelter…The 33.” Chile—heck, the entire world—was joyfully stunned. A mountain fell on those miners, they were trapped a half mile underground, and they were still alive. All of them.
The immediate question was how to get them out? Even one rescue would be miraculous…but thirty-three? The messages from the miners were heart-wrenching: “We ask that you rescue us as quickly as possible, and that you don’t abandon us,” the shift foreman said. “Don’t leave us alone.” The answer from Chile’s President Pinera: “You will not be left alone. You have not been alone. The entire country is with you all.”
Indeed, the entire world was with them. And in this day of war and suspicion, of bickering political parties and Internet bullying, how often does the world come together? Chilean flags were flown around the world, candles were put in windows, prayer vigils were held. The families of the miners moved to the work site, Camp Esperanza—Hope—to wait together. The oldest miner, married for 30 years, learned that his wife was camping half a mile above him. Concerned, he urged her to go home. Her response: “I’ll leave here when you do.”
For weeks and then months, the world waited. A tiny tunnel was drilled, supplies were lowered…food, water, air. A camera allowed us to see those ghostly images of the unexpectedly cheerful miners, singing Elvis Presley songs, asking the score on soccer matches, sending messages to their families. One watched, via fiberoptic cable, his wife giving birth to their daughter.
But how would they get out? The initial estimates for their rescue was Christmas Eve, but thanks to a Pennsylvania-based company, the drilling went better than expected. Still agonizingly slow, still difficult, drilling through virgin rock. Would the tunnel hold? What if the capsule twisted while en route? Would the winch operate, would the cables snap? It would be the deepest rescue ever attempted…and it would be attempted thirty-three times.
On October 13th, the world held its breath. And then, one by one, they were strapped into the capsule called Phoenix—the bird that rises from the ashes. The President of Chile was there, the First Lady, the rescue workers, doctors, EMTs, and of course, the families—wives, parents, children, grandchildren. As the first miner came into the sunlight, church bells rang throughout Chile. Children were sent home from school. The world wept with unadulterated joy. Each man was given a Chilean flag inscribed with their names, and they wore shirts that on the front said, “Thank you, God” and underneath, “Because nothing is impossible with God.” On the back, the shirts read “In whose hands are the depths of earth, the peaks of the mountains are His also.”
Over and over, the capsule descended into darkness and rose into light. “Welcome back to life,” was the greeting they received. One miner hugged his wife, then fell to his knees to offer thanks. Another kissed his wife and asked, “How’s the dog?” Some ran to the rescue workers and greeted them in elation; others held their children and cried. All were greeted by the President. All were taken to the hospital, where they watched and cheered as their fellow survivors ascended.
Every one of them was rescued flawlessly. Everyone was healthy. Every single one.
Before Oprah and Larry King, before the book deals and movie rights, before October 13th becomes a Chilean national holiday, those miners were alone in the dark. The families were told that this would likely be a recovery mission, not a rescue. After all, even if the miners had reached the shelter, there was only enough food for two days. And half a mile beneath the surface of the earth, the miners had to at least consider the thought that the world up there figured them for a lost cause. One day after the disaster without a sign from above. Three days. Seven. Ten. Fifteen.
But somehow, instead of despair, those above and those below chose hope, and theirs is a lesson in unity, in perseverance, in courage and faith. But it’s also a lesson in love.
There was a second note found on that seventeenth day, something more personal. It was from the oldest member of the group, the one whose wife waited with such steadfast and unswerving hope. This note said: “I haven’t stopped thinking about all of you for a single moment. I love you, and I will see you soon, and we will be happy ever after.”
Dios los bendiga a todos, Los 33! Viva Chile!