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Mission Accomplished

October 14, 2010 – 11:51 am

So, they’re all out. The 33 miners trapped 700 metres down a Chilean copper mine for 70 days have been rescued, in less than 24 hours. Everyone’s a winner baby, that’s the truth: the delighted president (approval ratings above 70%, from earthquake devastation in February – he was sworn in as an aftershock hit the country – to miraculous scenes of joy and family reunions; no ad or marketing campaign can buy such a dramatically improved image); the beaming mining minister (approval ratings of 85%), the media – more of that later; and, of course, the miners, who are safe and sound and, mostly, healthy (pneumonia, hypertension, and eye and dental infections). They will become wealthy men thanks to the global media frenzy, judging by the offers and negotiations already taking place, which started while they were still trapped: the mother of Esperanza, the baby born to one of the miners a month ago, said that the first family photo, of her husband reunited with her and meeting his new daughter, would “go to the highest bidder”. They’re learning fast – Max Clifford will be on the next plane out.

Hopefully this dramatic episode will have a more long-lasting positive effect: it will focus attention on improving the safety and working conditions of mines in Chile, as well as in other countries around the world. Chile’s economy depends on exporting copper; its main market is China, which wants to extend electricity supplies to more of its billions of inhabitants, and they need the copper to do this. But the South American country’s dependence on this industry comes as at a high human cost: this year alone, 50-odd men have been killed in Chilean mines. The San Jose mine, where the men were trapped, was closed after it was deemed unsafe. It was only reopened recently, and the men are paid an extra 20% for working there, as it is so dangerous. Talk about blood money.

I went down a silver mine in Potosi, Bolivia, which dates from the 18th century. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. Most tunnels weren’t high enough to stand up in. There were no steps or ladders to move between different levels. The men worked with manual tools – chisels and hammers – and small explosives. Their life expectancy is low, and the pretty colonial town itself is full of widows. We were asked to take soft drinks down as presents for the miners, as it is very hot, as well as matches, and coca leaves, which the men chew to give them stamina. At one point there was a mini-landslide and the ledge along which we were walking nearly collapsed into the sheer drop below. Some people in my group burst into tears or had panic attacks, refusing to move. I’m glad I went, but would never, ever want to repeat the experience.

These men lived for over two months in 800 metres of tunnel. Well organised into groups – their original shifts – they slept, ate, washed, read, played, wrote letters; some suffered varying degrees of depression. But what is remarkable is how every detail of their personal lives has become the subject of the world’s media. What better TV entertainment – because let’s face it, that’s what it was – can you get than 33 tearful reunions between loved ones separated for 10 weeks, who had almost given them up for dead before that probe arrived 17 days after the roof of their tunnel fell in? That much-awaited and well-renumerated story will be the next chapter of this minutely-documented drama.

It was a live soap opera. We all know who was having an affair – and now his wife does, too. We all know who had a baby; who proposed to their long-term partners; who was the media-friendliest – “Super” Supulveda Mario is a natural, with his genius for gestures (handing out rocks he brought up in a bag) and soundbites (“I was with God and the devil. And I reached out for God.”) The oldest, who was due to retire next month; the youngest, who looked traumatized; and the great-grandfather, a widower, who knelt on the ground clutching a bible. The ex-footballer, to whom David Villa sent a signed Tshirt as a birthday present.

It was pure televisual gold, and the Chileans knew how to use it to their advantage: the cartoon-like Phoenix capsule which brought the men out one by one, in less than 24 hours, was painted with the Chilean flag (the navy, how made the capsule, aren’t ignorant of the power of that image). The president hugged each of the men as they emerged from the capsule with their sunglasses on, with a smile that said, “You’re OK, so I’m OK. My political career has been given the biggest boost possible, thank you. This one will keep me in power for a good few years yet.” The singing of the national anthem, the enthusiastic waving of Chilean flags, the wild celebrations around the country as the last miner emerged from the capsule.

Very few news stories keep you glued to the screen in the same way this one has – constant drama, suspense, emotion, tears of joy; the longest time anyone has ever stayed alive underground; the most audacious rescue attempt ever; and the biggest television audience ever: 1,000 million people around the world followed the Chilean Mine Rescue (800 million watched Spain win this year’s World Cup final). It gripped the global television-viewing public in a way no previous other events have: it was a story which could have had a horrifying ending – a long, slow death by starvation and suffocation; instead, it is a story of hope and salvation. And 33 men whose lives, and those of their families, will never be the same again.

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