They Emerged from Purgatory, But Did We Learn Anything?
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
October 15, 2010
Executive Summary: Rescue operations for the San Jose gold and copper mine in Chile ended yesterday. Thirty-three miners, trapped more than 600 meters underground, were successfully brought to the surface. Looking back at Taiwan, how many of our politicians have this foreman's courage in the face of crisis? When a crisis confronts us, can we work together to survive the difficulties, instead of complaining? When someone needs assistance, do we go all out, acting with precision, doing our utmost? Or do we merely make a token effort, then give up? This group of miners laughed in the face of adversity. Besides admiring them, will we learn from them as well?
Full Text below:
For the first time, human beings were drilling to the center of the earth, not to extract minerals, but to rescue their trapped fellows. For the first time, a developing nation successfully carried out a difficult rescue mission with military precision, and the world looked on with admiration. For the first time, a tragic mine disaster had a happy ending, and redeemed the humanity of people the world over.
Rescue operations for the San Jose gold and copper mine in Chile ended yesterday. Thirty-three miners, trapped more than 600 meters underground, were successfully brought to the surface. Furthermore, they were in better physical condition than anyone expected. Rescuers initially estimated that the rescue would take 120 days, and that the trapped miners could not be extracted before Christmas. But technical and material support from various quarters enabled them to accomplish their "Mission Impossible" in 70 days, with virtually no complications to speak of.
This was the longest rescue operation in history. For the rescuers above ground, it was a difficult project. For the miners trapped underground, the physical and mental challenges were daunting. The amazing thing is that the rescuers above ground did everything right. They never missed a step. The miners trapped underground gave each other encouragement. No one fell apart. The rescue operation is being touted as the greatest rescue in modern history. The rescuers above ground and the miners trapped underground encouraged each other, cooperated with each other. They never lost faith. This enabled the trapped miners to emerge from purgatory and rejoin the living.
This incident forced us to re-examine the "time" vs. "cost" myth. Disaster relief efforts on Taiwan used to be conducted in accordance with an iron law known as the "Golden 72 Hours." The assumption was that once this time frame had been exceeded, the chances the victims were still alive were slim, and rescue efforts would be abandoned. This time however, the miners were found alive by rescuers 70 days after the mine collapsed. The provision of the emergency refuge zone played a role. It had only enough air and water for two days. But rescue workers remained tireless, and continued their search. After seven failed exploratory shafts, they finally located the survivors. Their efforts bore witness to boundless human will and endurance.
The rescue operation required continuous excavation at extremely deep levels. Not only were the risks high, the cost was even higher. The rescue operation cost nearly 600 million NTD. The cost of rescuing each miner was nearly 20 million NTD. The rescue operation had a price. But human life is priceless. People clearly knew that over 30 people were trapped below. No matter how financially strapped the government might be, it had to do its utmost to rescue them. How can one put a price tag on a successful rescue?
The Chilean government's rescue operation was remarkable. Its rescue plan was methodical. It proceeded above ground and below, simultaneously. In the event one rescue plan failed, it simultaneously prepared an alternate plan. For example, rescuers simultaneously drilled two rescue shafts. In the event one of the two shafts missed, they would immediately begin drilling a third, at another location. This substantially increased the cost of the rescue operation. But it was the best way to ensure that the miners would be rescued.
Chile's mines have a poor reputation. Their safety has been questionable. But this time the Chilean Government's rescue effort resulted in success. It looked after the trapped miners, providing them with sustenance. The military cooperated by providing the Phoenix rescue capsule. The government invited experts from the United States to assist, The disaster had a happy ending. It not only united the hearts of the Chilean people, it won the applause of the world.
Most moving of all, was the comportment of the 33 miners. Trapped in a virtual purgatory, subject to physical and mental suffering, facing an unknown fate, they refused to despair. They cheered each other on. Within their dark, narrow space, they maintained discipline and order. They exercised, making their waists smaller, ensuring that they would fit into the rescue capsule. They yielded to one another. Each volunteered to be the last rescued. By mutual agreement, they agreed to write a book about their experience, and to share any royalties.
How can anyone not respect the miners? Yesterday, 54 year old Luis Ursua was the last man to be rescued. This mining foreman may look like just another elderly man. But he is a genuine hero. When the mine collapsed, he led everyone to the refuge zone. He strictly rationed both water and food, ensuring that two days of rations lasted 17 days, and keep them alive until rescuers could reach them. He divided 30 square meters of tunnel into a work area, rest area, and sanitary area. He assigned people to shifts. He simulated day and night by turning the lights on and off, making sure that everyone knew what time it was above. This foreman comported himself with greater calm and wisdom than most generals. That was why 33 miners could stare into the face of death and not panic.
Looking back at Taiwan, how many of our politicians have this foreman's courage in the face of crisis? When a crisis confronts us, can we work together to survive the difficulties, instead of complaining? When someone needs assistance, do we go all out, acting with precision, doing our utmost? Or do we merely make a token effort, then give up? This group of miners laughed in the face of adversity. Besides admiring them, will we learn from them as well?