The miners call it Hell. The only thing missing is the fire and brimstone. Half-a-mile underground in northern Chile, 33 men are trapped in a cramped shelter where the temperature is a constant 85 degrees. Journalists across the planet have descended on the Atacama desert to report on the so-called Miracle of the San Jose Mine. The countdown clock is ticking on a rescue effort that could take two to four months.
In the annals of survival, "Los 33" (as they are now known) will surely take their place along with legendary survivors of the Andes plane crash in 1972, some of whom are now en route to the Chilean mine to lend support. The 16 Andes survivors endured 72 freezing days on a glacier before they were rescued. The Chilean 33 were entombed on August 5th and are on pace to surpass that number along with the previous record (China) for survival in a mine disaster (25 days).
For all the danger ahead, these men have already survived the worst — the terrifying 17 days underground before they made contact with the outside world. It won’t be easy or comfortable, but Los 33 will eventually emerge from the dank darkness and newspaper headlines will declare a "Christmas Miracle."
In reality, the saga is closely following classic patterns of human behavior under extreme pressure. Yes, there is a risk of another cave-in. Yes, the exact ending of this drama — especially the timing — remains uncertain. But going forward, the story isn’t really about life and death. It’s about endurance, resilience, the power of hope … and weight loss.
1. The biggest challenge ahead is sanity.
So far, the greatest threats to the miner’s physical survival have been solved. A drill hole connects them to the world above. This four-inch hole is a kind of fragile umbilical cord — as the Chilean health minister calls it — for sending oxygen, food, water, medicine, communications (even a marriage proposal) and — apparently most important to the miners — tooth brushes and beer. Everything from the sublime to the mundane is making its way down the bore hole. Thirty-three miniature Bibles have been dispatched along with small soccer balls, nicotine patches (smokers can’t light matches for fear of explosions), dominoes and playing cards (for the "casino" in the shelter). Anti-depression medicines are also ready to be pushed below in five foot long capsules nicknamed "doves."
Beyond supplies, everyone who knows anything about long term confinement is en route to northern Chile (or consulting with local officials). Experts from NASA are on their way to offer advice on nutrition and psychology for people – like astronauts — in cramped spaces for long periods. Chile’s submarine commanders have also weighed in with ideas about living for long periods in dark, crowded conditions.
And those legendary survivors of the Andes plane crash are traveling from Uruguay. "When they get out and they hug each other above ground, they’ll see how little two or three months is in a lifetime," Jose Luis Inciarte, one of the Andes survivors, told reporters.
2. Hope is the most important survival tool.
At the moment, five miners are "in very bad emotional shape," according to Dr. Jaime Mañalich, Chile’s health minister. They’re socially isolated and refused to participate in taping a group video. It should come as no surprise that five miners — 15 percent of the group — aren’t in the mood to perform in a video tour of their dungeon. That’s a predictable and manageable percentage, comparable to other disasters.
Anti-depression and anxiety drugs may be able to help those miners but hope will be the most important survival tool for the rest. At the US air force survival school in Spokane, Washington, they teach the so-called Rule of Three. You can live three minutes with oxygen; three days without water; three weeks without food. But you’ll only last three seconds without hope.
Right now, we can assume the miners have plenty of hope. They know 16 million fellow Chileans are rooting for them. They have spoken via microphone with their country’s president, Sebastian Pinera, who promised they would be rescued. They know that help is on the way. And some, if not all, believe that God is looking out for them.
Of all the challenges on the outside, managing the miners’ psychology will be as important as drilling the rescue shaft. Inevitably, there will be disappointments. Machinery will break. Mistakes will be made. But the miners must trust that they’re getting accurate information. They must set achievable goals. They must never feel abandoned. And above all, they must feel confident that they will eventually see the light above and their families and friends again.
3. Underground, it’s not Lord of the Flies.
In their first video, the shirtless miners look scraggly, emaciated and almost ghostly. It’s natural to wonder: Will their civility disintegrate? Will order eventually dissolve?
From experience in other disasters, social collapse is extremely unlikely. Yes, there will be tension, frustration and factions. But these men have already demonstrated discipline and ability to work together effectively.
"We have organized everything very well down here," says Mario Sepúlveda, a 39 year old miner who is the main presenter of the video tour.
"Here is where we meet every day, here is where we plan, where we pray," he goes on. "Here is the meeting room where all of the decisions are made with the involvement of the 33 that are here."
Shift foreman Luis Urzúa is technically in charge. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, Urzúa 321– a soccer coach — strictly rationed supplies (two spoons of tuna, a mouthful of milk, a biscuit, and a canned peach every 48 hours) and stretched two days of food into two weeks.
Another miner — trained as a paramedic — has stepped into the role as the group’s medical officer.
So far, the group appears to be functioning efficiently and collaboratively. In the military, this is called unit cohesion. Especially in extreme situations, the team knows it must stick together to succeed and survive.
4. The greatest challenge may be above ground.
There will be plenty of twists and turns ahead for the miners. But now, it’s all about waiting and — for some — losing weight. Nine of the 33 are reportedly too heavy to fit into the planned rescue shaft and will need to slim down (if they haven’t already because of the deprivation).
When all 33 are eventually raised to the surface, they will face a new survival challenge: How to go on with their lives.
The media onslaught will create instant national heroes and accompanying riches. TV producers are surely focusing on shift foreman Urzúa and Sepulveda, the presenter of the video. Book publishers must be eyeing Victor Segovia, described in the video as "our great writer, our friend … who has been writing down everything we have gone through since the day the event happened."
Segovia smiles faintly and gives the thumbs up sign. "I want to send my regards to my family, especially my wife and daughter, I love them very much," he says.
"Don’t worry," he goes on. "Everything is going is to be fine."
For some, everything will indeed be fine. For others, the experience will be scarring. For every single one, the ordeal will be life-changing.
The family of Edison Pena, a 34-year-old miner, understands the possibilities and opportunities. With relatives sending letters and gifts to loved ones through the bore hole, Pena’s family attached a photo of Elvis Presley to a note of encouragement.
"Hang in there," they wrote, "because soon you’re going to be more famous than Elvis."
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PHOTO (cc): Flickr / RichardLowkes