Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Order of Fenix

The rescue mission capsule was aptly named as "Phoenix" (albeit with a Spanish slant - "Fenix"). The Chilean Miners’ saga captured the attention of almost the entire world as it unfolded culminating with the final rescue mission after 69 days of confinement.  It was probably the best reality TV one could have witnessed with most of the major news channels covering the rescue effort 24X7.  

In the end, it was a triumph of courage, unflinching faith and above all unwavering hope. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said "We have done what the entire world was waiting for.” The president told Urzua, the shift Supervisor (No. 33rd to emerge):  "You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration. Go hug your wife and your daughter."  With Urzua by his side, he led the crowd in singing the national anthem. U.S. President Barack Obama said the rescue had "inspired the world."

It is very hard to even imagine how the 33 men survived the initial 17 days when they had no interaction with the external world and had only 2 days of food supply. They only had 10 cans of tuna to share, and that the only water they could drink tasted of oil. And when they were eventually contacted they were informed that it could take several months to get them out.
The miners said it felt like an earthquake when the shaft finally collapsed above them, filling the lower reaches of the mine with suffocating dust. It took hours before they could even begin to see.
Just getting trapped in an elevator for a few hours can be daunting for many of us and here we are talking of getting trapped 650 mts. below the ground in a humid environment with no communication to the outside world for 17 days!.
Once their news of survival reached, even NASA was called upon to offer advice on how to best care for the miners in their state of isolation and confinement, their mental health is obviously being the main concern.

Knowing that a huge rescue effort is underway must offer a certain degree of comfort but how will the men come to terms with the fact they will not see daylight for weeks to come? And what mental resilience will they require?
There are a lot of parallels with space missions, which can sometimes leave astronauts stranded for unexpectedly long periods of time, says Dr Kevin Fong from the Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine at University College London. "This is as extreme as it gets and actually far more austere than for astronauts - I can't even begin to imagine it. They are isolated in a hazardous environment and the psychological stress will be quite impressive."

I am eager to find out about their mental state when they were trapped and staring almost a certain death in its face on what their thoughts were during those dark days when they little survival prospect, if any.  It makes one to contemplate the extremes - whether they would have turned into cannibals to extend their life?  Or would they have gracefully accepted death?

The question keeps coming back - What kept them going? How did they draw their strength? It will be a fascinating read when their memoirs are eventually published.

Mining industry is prone with accidents and the previous record of longest period of ordeal before their eventual rescue was 25 days.
Among the most compelling stories from the ordeal will be Urzua's (33rd to exit - a true leader!!). He was the shift foreman when 700,000 tons of rock sealed them in. It was his strict rationing of the 48-hour food supply that helped them stay alive until help arrived. He was a fundamental pillar that enabled them to keep discipline.
There were critical moments, but at the end they never lost their hope because they had very positive leaders who kept the group unified. None of the miners are suffering from shock despite their harrowing entrapment, a reflection of the daily care and feeding sent through a narrow bore hole by a team of hundreds, and the team of psychologists that helped keep them sane. The men certainly have an extraordinary story to tell. No one before them had been trapped so long and survived.

The rescue exceeded expectations every step of the way. Officials first said it might be four months before they could get the men out; it turned out to be 69 days and about 8 hours. That got faster as the operation went along, and all the miners were safely above ground in 22 hours, 37 minutes.
The miners made the smooth ascent inside a capsule called Fenix 2– 13 feet tall, barely wider than their shoulders and painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag. It had a door that stuck occasionally, and some wheels had to be replaced, but it worked exactly as planned.

"We were completely surprised," added Health Minister Jaime Manalich. "Any effort we could have made doesn't explain the health condition these people have today."
If this is not miracle, then what is it? Miracles are experienced by those who keep an unwavering faith and belief. Their triumph was cheered right through the world and rightfully so.

Unity helped the men, known as "los 33," survive for 69 days underground, including more than two weeks when no one knew whether they were alive.  Pictures of the miners as they emerged from the Fenix Capsule shows it all.

The Chilean miners’ story has all the elements of Drama, Love, Betrayal, Hope, Courage, Despair et al.  the ingredients for the making of an epic Hollywood / Bollywood movie…

Let’s take a peek at some of the key characters as compiled from the various press reports (and it is indeed fascinating):

THE YOUNGSTER – Jimmy Sanchez [No. 5]
Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest at 19, proposed to his 17-year-old girlfriend while he was trapped below, though his father urged him to reconsider. The couple have a 4-month-old baby girl,.  "You are just 19, and have so much life ahead of you, to enjoy, to know people," read the letter Eugenio Sanchez sent to his son. "It cannot be that because you are now closed up in the mine that you are going to throw away all your plans."
"It's fine that you want to be with Helencita and everything... but get married? Well, marriage is a really serious thing." But girlfriend Helen Avalos said she was sure they would be wed.  "He has to keep his word," she said. But first, "We'll have an enormous party. I think we'll have almost 500 people."

THE MEDIC or “Dil ka Rogi (a.k.a Love Rat)” – Johnny Barrios Rojas [No. 21]
Dubbed "el enfermero" – the nurse – Barrios, 50, served as the miners' medic during the ordeal, dispensing medication sent in by health officials, passing out nicotine patches and photographing wounds. He reportedly ended all his letters this way: "Get me out of this hole, dead or alive."
Johnny Barrios Rojas' rescue was among the most anticipated – if only to see who would be there to greet him.  Order No. 21 of the men pulled from the collapsed mine, Barrios gained notoriety as the man who had two women at Camp Hope – his wife of 28 years, Marta Salinas, and his mistress of four, Susana Valenzuela.
Salinas apparently knew nothing of the affair until the two women ran into each other amid the tents pitched by family members anxiously holding vigil – and a very public spat ensued. The 50-year-old Barrios looked around sheepishly Wednesday as he emerged from the rescue tube that elevated him to the Earth's surface, peering through dark glasses as mining officials in red shirts applauded loudly.
Behind him, smiling widely and waiting for him to notice her stood Valenzuela. When he didn't, the round-faced strawberry blonde walked around to face Barrios and gave him a long kiss and hug, weeping into the shoulder of his jumpsuit as he whispered into her ear.
Salinas was nowhere to be seen and had indicated that she would not be present to greet him. Weeks earlier, Barrios' wife had ripped down a poster of her husband put up by his mistress. Defiant, the mistress taped the poster back up, and beneath several poems and prayers she had dedicated to him, she signed it, "Your Wife."

THE ORGANIZER – Omar Reygadas [No. 17]
Omar Reygadas became a great-grandfather – for the fourth time – while trapped underground. The 56-year-old electrician had survived other mine collapses and was said to have exclaimed "Not again!" when he and the others were trapped by the Aug. 5 collapse. Reygadas later helped organize life below the surface, calming others when they got nervous and helping them get what they needed from authorities outside.
"He is in charge of ensuring that we are well," one miner wrote to his wife.

THE EVANGELIST – Jose Henriquez [No. 24]
Jose Henriquez turned to his Christian faith while he was underground, forming a prayer group that met several times a day, and asking to have 33 Bibles sent down the narrow supply passage.
Nevertheless, the 56-year-old father of twin daughters had one vice he hoped the time underground would cure.  Herniquez' wife Hettiz Berrios was said to be happy when her husband asked authorities to send him food rather than cigarettes. "He's trying to stop puffing. ... Hopefully he'll do it," she said.

THE FOOTBALLER – Franklin Lobos [No. 27]
Former Chilean national soccer player Franklin Lobos has never seen a bigger victory. Lobos briefly bounced a soccer ball on his foot and knee as he stepped from the capsule that carried him from the mine where he was trapped with 32 other men. Then he embraced relatives and President Pinera.
The 53-year-old is the only rescued man whose name was widely known in Chile before the disaster. He played for the Chilean team that qualified for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He was the driver of a truck that takes miners to and from the mine. He was in the mine with the group he drives when the collapse occurred – leaving them alive but cut off from the outside world.

THE LEADER – Luiz Urzua [No 33]
Luis Urzua, 54 The shift foreman, known as Don Lucho by other miners, took a leading role while they were trapped and made maps of their cave.
Speaking from a hospital bed at the San José mine, shift foreman Luis Urzúa – the man who kept the Chilean miners alive for two months – said his secret for keeping the men bonded and focused on survival was majority decision-making.
"You just have to speak the truth and believe in democracy," said Urzúa, his eyes hidden behind black glasses. President Sebastián Piñera greeted him with tears in his eyes. "You're not the same after this and neither are we,"  President Piñera told him. "We will never forget this."


Finally, the order of Fenix was determined by the psychologists and the Ministry of Health officials based on an assessment of physical and mental strength of the miners.  The initial few were chosen for their physical and mental strength and also to provide a morale booster for the rest – providing them with the belief that “It can be done”!

1. Florencio Avalos, 2. Mario Sepulveda, 3. Juan Illanes, 4. Carlos Mamani, 5. Jimmy Sanchez, 6. Osman Araya, 7. Jose Ojeda, 8. Claudio Yanez, 9. Mario Gomez, 10. Alex Vega, 11. Jorge Galleguillos, 12. Edison Pena, 13. Carlos Barrios, 14. Victor Zamora, 15. Víctor Segovia, 16. Daniel Herrera, 17. Omar Reygadas, 18. Esteban Rojas, 19. Pablo Rojas, 20.Dario Segovia, 21. Yonni Barrios, 22. Samuel Avalos, 23.Carlos Bugueno, 24. Jose Henriquez, 25. Renan Avalos, 26. Claudio Acuna, 27. Franklin Lobos, 28. Richard Villarroel, 29. Juan Aguilar, 30. Raul Bustos, 31. Pedro Cortez, 32. Ariel Ticona, 33. Luis Urzua.

What Next?
  • A Greek mining company wants to bring them to the sunny Aegean islands, competing with rainy Chiloe in the country's southern archipelago, whose tourism bureau wants them to stay for a week.
  • Soccer teams in Madrid, Manchester and Buenos Aires want them in their stadiums. Bolivia's president wants them at his palace. TV host Don Francisco wants them all on his popular "Sabado Gigante" show in Miami.
  • Hearing that miner Edison Pena jogged regularly in the tunnels below the collapsed rock, the New York City marathon invited him to participate in next month's race.
  • The rescue team even asked Guinness World Records to honor all 33 with the record for longest time trapped underground, rather than the last miner out, Luis Urzua. Guinness spokeswoman Jamie Panas said the organization was studying the question.
Mining is Chile's lifeblood, providing 40 percent of state earnings, and Pinera put his mining minister and the operations chief of state-owned Codelco, the country's biggest company, in charge of the rescue.

Psychiatrists and other experts in surviving extreme situations predict their lives will be anything but normal. Rejoining a world intensely curious about their ordeal, they have been invited to presidential palaces, to take all-expenses-paid vacations and to appear on countless TV shows. Book and movie deals are pending, along with job offers. Their life is guaranteed to be anything but normal for many reasons!!!

The fascinating story of the Chilean Miners will continue to interest social psychologists and the entertainment industry.  This has many more twists and turns and this is just the beginning!!!.

Ultimately, I end this story with this thought:

“Faith is a sounder guide than reason. Reason can only go so far, but faith has no limits”.    ~Blaise Pascal~