Highway Thru Hell

When Hope Caved in, the Chilean Miners Rescue

Celebrations as Plan B, the rescue effort to save a group Chilean miners, makes contact.

Anyone who has watched Highway through Hell will know that for a rescue to work you need a great team. This week, our search for the greatest rescue stories has come across one of the best.

The Chilean Miners of Copiapó is a team that became an underground sensation after a miraculous recovery which was followed by a tense and hopeful world.

It was 5th of August 2010, when a  massive explosion rocked the landscape at the San José copper-gold mine in Northern Chile. Located in the Atacama Desert, 28 miles north of the regional capital of Copiapó, the explosion caused a cave-in which left 33 men trapped half a mile underground.

Every exit was blocked by fallen rock, and the miners, aged from 19 to 63, were stuck with no way out. Luis Urzua, the most senior of the 33 and the duty shift supervisor that day, led the team to the 540 SQ FT emergency shelter.

It was in this shelter that the dire situation became apparent. There was no way to contact above ground, ventilation barely existed, water was sparse and there was only enough food to last three days.

40-year-old miner Mario Sepúlveda, one of the most vocal of the group, spoke up.

“Even if we’re super-optimistic about things, the best you can say is we’re in deep shit,” he said.

“The only thing we can do is to be strong, super-disciplined, and united.”

Being half-a-mile underground brings an eerie silence, noted miner Victor Segovia.

“Down here, there is no day, only darkness, a place where hope must have seemed dead.

“There is a great sense of powerlessness. We don’t know if we are being rescued or what is going on outside because down here we don’t hear any noises from machines or anything.”

Then, as the world above seemed too difficult to even imagine, a miracle occurred.

A sudden noise reverberated around the mine, It was the unmistakable sound of a drill.

“Do you hear that?” Sepúlveda shouted, “What a beautiful noise!”

Above the surface, a rescue was underway. A day after the collapse, Chile’s National Emergency Office announced that 130 people were working to rescue the miners. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera travelled to Copiapo two days later to meet with officials and discuss the situation. It became an international rescue.

The rescue team included nearly every Chilean government ministry, NASA, and a dozen corporations from around the world. Three separate drilling teams were set up. With Plan A, Plan B and Plan C all in motion, nothing could be left to chance.

Global media also descended onto the site, with more than 2,000 journalists flocking to the desert. The global demand for the story was huge. People wanted to know how, wanted to know names, and most importantly, wanted solutions. This was a 24-hour news story.

But, after 17 days the rescue team still hadn’t made contact with miners who were beginning to lose hope. They could still hear the drilling, but no voices, and their supplies were running out.

Then it came. On 22 August, a drill came through the upper walls of the tunnel just outside the emergency shelter. For four hours, the drill just sat there, with the teasing thought of salvation literally hanging above them.

The miners gathered around it and, in jubilation each man banged upon it with a wrench. Next, they attached notes to the drill, personal ones, but also one that read “We are well in the Refuge. The 33.”

This was the message the 700 family members were waiting for.

Glucose packs and water were sent down, psychological experts called in and emotional video calls between families took place. Next, it was time to drill big enough so each miner could fit through.

While hope was restored, this was just the start of the next chapter. Drilling down at such a size was no easy task, there was no quick fix, and the miners were told to expect a “lengthy process.”

At least now, they had supplies, some comfort and an international rescue team on their side. Now, they believed they would get out, it was just a question of when.

On October 9, over 3 months after the initial collapse, Plan B broke through the roof of the mine at the required depth and width. Three days later, they were ready to begin lifting the miners out of their hell-hole, one-by-one, up the shaft that Plan B had built.

To do it they needed a wench, a device used for winding and tension adjustments, which could carry one man at a time who would then be pulled up the tunnel to the ground above. First up was Florencio Silva, one of the younger and stronger men, deemed fit enough to test the newly created tunnel.

It’s estimated that over one billion people watch Silva’s assent live on television. A collective sense of joy engulfed those who waited, as well as the millions watching on TV.

One-by-one the miners reached the top, with the last to get there Urzua, the duty shift supervisor on that fateful day.

Although they came up alone, there was no mistaking that this was a team. From the miners who stayed strong for so long, to the international team above ground, they collectively showed that we are stronger together.