If you were even remotely interested by the Chilean miners’ rescue last year, this is a book worth reading. In fact, even if you have never even heard of them, this is a book worth reading.
It is titled ‘The 33’ because the first contact the miners had with people on the ground was a note they sent up that said, “Estamos bien en al refugion, los 33”. “We are all right in the shelter, the 33 of us”. This was 17 days after the mine had collapsed and no-one had known whether anyone had survived or not.
This book is an incredible story of survival, comradeship, rescue and, for once, is a fantastica good news story. This was a case of the ‘global village’ come alive, where help came from all around the world, and millions of people were able to watch the rescue, step by step, on television. The spectacle of watching the first miner step out of that module from the depths of a collapsed mine is an image that will always stay with me. And then watching another 32 emerge. I cried along with their families.
Jonathan Franklin was the only print-journalist who was given access to the rescue efforts. He attended planning meetings, spent much time with the doctors and psychologists and did extensive interviews with the miners. Thus his book gives insights into the ordeal that were never reported in the papers or shown on television.
The aspect of the book that I found interesting and that I had no prior knowledge of was how the miners organised themselves before being found. As I said, 17 days went by before they were able to tell people that they were alive. For 17 days they were trapped almost 700 metres underground in a small space. They had only a few tins of tuna and crackers to eat and a small amount of milk and juice. The men initially ate a tiny portion of food every 12 hours, and this was reduced to 24 hours to try to eke out the rations.
The men organised themselves into routines and roles. One of them was a natural leader, another the moderator, another the medic. They survived on a strict regime of daily activities, including prayer and group meetings, and by keeping physical movement to an absolute minimum.
On day 15, they were down to the last of their food and had only contaminated water to drink. They had to reduce rations to one bite every three days. The men were starving to death. Privately some of them thought about eating the first man to die. Their skin had developed sores and rashes from the constant humidity. Some hallucinated, others prayed and talked to God and the Devil.
Up above ground, the Chilean President, Sebastian Pinera, had appealed to the world for help. Some were skeptical that he was only so involved because he was new to his position, but I think he worked wonders and the sense to ask for help instead of try to do it on his own (as Russia had when those men were trapped in a submarine). Three separate drilling operations were set up to try and locate the missing miners, one of which finally broke through to their refuge. For the first time in 17 days, the miners breathed fresh air.
Then came another bit that intrigued me – life underground once they had been discovered. Discord arose amongst the miners and amongst people above ground. Initially each miner was allowed only a one minute conversation with his family, on the advice of the psychologist. The miners fought below ground about this and jostled around the phone and the families fought above ground. Letters were screened; the miners became suspicious. I’m still not sure why the psychologist insisted on this limited contact – certainly the NASA experts were against it.
A television was sent down to the men, which also caused discontent, as some of the men started to ignore their duties, choosing to lounge in front of the TV instead. Experts wondered whether blow-up dolls should be sent down to help relieve sexual tension (they weren’t).
I won’t go into all the details as that would spoil the book for you, but after many hours of careful engineering design, a capsule was made in which each miner would fit and be pulled up to surface level. Nothing like this had ever been done before and, in truth, no one knew whether it would work.
But, as most of us saw on TV, it did and the joy and relief that showed on each miner’s face as he emerged was a reflection of how great man can be when we all pull together for a common cause.
Read this book – it is an well-written, in-depth account of an absolutely incredible ordeal that had a happy ending.