Chilean miners – triumph of the human spirit

Chilean miner Juan Andres Illanes Palma, the third to be rescued, acknowledges the crowd after emerging from the rescue capsule at Copiapo (AP Photo)

Like almost everyone, I’ve been watching the drama of the Chilean miners and praying for their safe return. I worked for mining company Phelps Dodge for five years, and I visited the company’s Candelaria mine near Copiapo, the miners’ home, on several occasions. In some small way, I feel connected to these miners.

Throughout their ordeal, they’ve displayed resourcefulness, toughness and great compassion. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be cooped up as part of a group of 33 men trapped 2,000 feet underground, especially in the early days, when the prospects for rescue were at best unclear, at worst dismal. Just holding it together, rationing what little food was available, keeping tempers in check, and not becoming despondent, was an admirable accomplishment.

My own experience with the Chilean people has been that they are warm, welcoming and delightful. They’ve gone through tremendous upheaval during the past 50 years – political unrest, nationalized industries, political coups and then a return to a more republican form of government and a market-based economy. Their experiences seem to have made them realistic, resilient and open to whatever comes their way. They enjoy the great wines they produce, the beautiful coast they inhabit, and the company of their visitors and themselves. I think the 33 miners in Copiapo accurately reflected the strengths of their culture, even arguing not over who would be the first to be rescued but instead over who would be able to make the sacrifice to be last.

I’ve thought about whether U.S. miners would have handled the situation with the same grace under pressure, and I think they would have. Mining produces tight cultures. Mining towns often are in the middle of nowhere, and families work the mine for many generations. As a result, the culture is more tightly knit and stronger than can be found in many other U.S. communities. People learn to take care of each other, and they learn to live and let live. So I think our miners would have done just as well if they’d been trapped underground.

The problem is, I’m not so sure about many of the rest of us, myself included. Especially in urban communities, we’ve gotten spoiled, we’ve lost a fair amount of self-sufficiency, and we’re used to having plenty of plenty at all times. I’d like to believe we’d find it within ourselves to be as gracious as the Chilean miners, but I’m not so sure. What do you think?

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