The rescue of 33 Chilean miners in October 2010 saw international celebration with positive news stories reported around the world. The solidarity that was shown by the authorities’ committed to the lives of those trapped, as well as the solidarity between the miners underground cannot be underestimated in the process of securing their safe rescue.

The rescue of 33 miners from the San Jose gold and copper mine in Chile’s Aatacama desert brought international celebration for a genuine good news story. The story also showed the real solidarity of the human spirit, both among the miners and their friends and family who gathered on the surface at what became known as Camp Hope.

The mine collapsed in August, trapping the miners 2000 ft below under 700,000 tonnes of rock. It would be 70 days before the first miner emerged once again on the surface. They were thought lost, either already dead or silently dying entombed, due to lack of oxygen or starved of food and water. For 17 days, soundings into the rock produced no evidence that there were any signs of life or means of finding their whereabouts. Yet the authorities insisted on continuing to search and drill on behalf of the families.

In an attempt to locate them, they got through to the refuge chamber and when a minute camera was sent down the image of a live miner’s face came back.  Then the work began, trying to get through to keep the miners alive while organising how to engineer them out. The best mining engineers were called from across the world to design a solution with the Chilean rescue team.  Never had engineers drilled through so much rock so deep and under such time pressure with a view to creating a shaft large and safe enough to get the men up to the surface and out.

Meanwhile, food, water, basic supplies and encouraging communications passed up and down the tiny hole through the rock. Amazingly the shift leader of the team from the first day of their entombment decided they should only use absolute minimum food rations, anticipating that if their rescue took some time, they should all try to survive as many days as possible.

The stories of solidarity from below the ground have been inspiring. The constant prayer, the efforts to keep spirits high and the man who used to run through the mine everyday to retain his sanity.

The challenge of course was the length of time they would have to survive underground until a safe means of rescuing them could be put in place. There was talk of Christmas but in the event the rescue was completed in 53 days. It took this time to get the specially designed capsule in position to bring the men up to the surface.

After patient positioning and a test run, the first miner, 54 year old Florencio Avalos, was put in the capsule and hoisted up through the rock without a hitch. One by one each miner was hauled back up to be greeted by the rescue team, their families and the Chilean President Pinera.

It was not only the Chilean commitment to rescuing these men, the patient, carefully designed and organised planning and execution of the rescue team but the expressions of thanks and gratitude, not least to God, that characterised it as different.  Every interview whether with ordinary Chileans watching in the towns and cities, with family members or with politicians seemed to contain an explicit reference to “thanking God” for a miracle.

The families who camped nearby while the work went on prayed constantly, with masses being offered throughout the rescue. Many of the miners filmed as they got out of the capsule on the surface uttered a prayer of thanks, some dropped to their knees to thank God.

For the Chilean people it was a serious act of testimony to their “faith”, hope and commitment to prayer.  They meant their prayer of thanks and the President, in his welcoming statement, thanked God for not putting the Chilean people to “a test that they could not overcome”.

He also pledged to review safety standards in the mines. There are an average of 39 fatal accidents in Chile’s mines each year. The Chilean miners’ rescue was a testimony to faith in God but it was also an act of public commitment to the life of human beings.

What energy, commitment, hope and courage was exercised at every level to rescuing these men. They refused to abandon them or write them off despite the odds.

John Battle and Paul Donovan


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