The rescue of miners trapped in the bowels of the earth in Chile's San Jose mine in Copiapo has inspired awe and admiration round the world — for the way humanitarian values fused with state-of-the-art technology to score an unparalleled and moving triumph. To keep 33 miners trapped in a gold and copper mine 700 metres under the earth's surface safe and in reasonably good physical and mental health for 69 days was a challenge with few precedents. On Wednesday, the world exulted as 31-year-old Florencio Avalos, who had done wonders for the morale of his comrades, emerged from a special rescue capsule. The workers whose bare-chested images in their sweltering dwelling had become familiar to people worldwide were reborn, thanks to a modern-day secular miracle. Those who were reunited with their families naturally felt that life meant much more to them now. Some wanted more attention devoted to safety. The operation was executed with tremendous preparation, precision, and orderliness, without which there would have been no question of success. There are heart-warming stories such as those of 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest member of the group who preserved himself with thoughts of his two-month-old daughter, and 63-year-old Mario Gomez, who has been working the mines from the age of 12 and was thinking of retiring when the world seemed to come down around him. Happily, they have won their freedom weeks earlier than was thought possible.
There are several lessons in disaster management to be learnt from this heroic rescue. Most important was the commitment of the Chilean authorities led by President Sebastian Pinera in pursuing the complicated rescue plan. Although the government made the ill-advised move to reopen the mine two years ago despite a fatal accident in 2007, it lost no time in seeking international expertise to come up with the capsule-and-winch plan. U.S. expertise in drilling and a NASA-aided design effort for the capsule — appropriately named Phoenix — proved to be a big winner. The grit and determination of the families of the trapped workers, and the trust they sustained in the rescue operation, were crucial factors behind its success. Medical science was intelligently deployed to provide adequate nutrition for those trapped (including a diabetic who was pulled out quite early in the operation) and keep their morale high by ensuring regular exercise. The miners could send up pictures that reassured their families and ensured emotional well-being. A tube to deliver glucose, rehydration tablets, and high-protein and high-calorie food to the miners proved to be a lifeline. Workers in all countries, particularly those risking life and limb in hazardous occupations, will see in the Chilean ordeal hope for change — that in its wake, the world will pay greater attention to worker safety.