Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chile Mine Disaster - The Mysterious White Butterfly or Angel - Was God With Them?


As the stories of the astounding rescue come to light it is clear the strong faith in God guided the miners through the 17 days they were thought to be dead and the entire 70 day ordeal of being buried alive. As one said upon reaching the surface, "I saw the Devil and I saw God when we first got trapped, and I reached out to God."

Why did the miners break their pattern of eating that fateful day of the collapse and all eat together by the rescue shelter rather than be spread out throughout the tunnels that collapsed where they would have been killed? Where did the white butterfly come from 2,000 feet underground that caught the attention of two miners fleeing during the mine collapse? They stopped to watch it in fascination and seconds later the tunnel just ahead of them collapsed. Was it an angel from God? The distraction saved them from being buried live.

In Chile, 33 miners are still trapped underground. Their families are still waiting patiently. Huddled around a fire on a chilly night, they are now telling the incredible story of how a butterfly was their tiny guardian angel.

In a letter to his brother, miner Jorge Galeguillos says he believes a white butterfly saved his life the day the mine caved.

Mining consultant Miguel Fortt is not given to flights of fancy. He says white butterflies flutter around purple flowers that blossom in the desert early in the morning, but they rarely fly deep into a mineshaft. He says the two miners slowed down to observe the butterfly and that saved them from driving into rockfalls triggered by the first cave-in.

"People who are religious would call this a miracle. From a scientific perspective the butterfly may have flown into the mine on air currents. You can draw your own conclusions but that butterfly saved lives," Fortt says.

Galeguillos' brother, who is also a miner, can't explain how a butterfly flew more than 500 meters deep into the mine. But like most of the miners there, he believes the butterfly was protecting his older brother's life.

Whether or not the white butterfly was an angel or a misguided butterfly who flew 500 feet into the tunnel; its a sign of hope for many people who are praying their loved ones will make it out safely from the collapsed mine. As the miners and the families wait for their rescue, at least they can hold onto this superstition to keep their faith going. This was truly an uplifting story to an otherwise tragic event.

“Here is where we meet every day, here is where we plan, where we pray,” he says. “Here is the meeting room where all of the decisions are made with the involvement of the 33 that are here.”

By Guy Adams at the San José Mine
Wednesday, 13 October 2010

They may not take kindly to being called fortunate, given the fear and discomfort they endured an incarceration that would last almost 70 days, but from the very moment at which they were first trapped underground, the 33 men who have now started to emerge from the San José mine benefited from some crucial strokes of good luck.

The rock fall that first trapped them in struck at around noon on August 5, when the men having lunch in a reinforced rescue shelter roughly 700 metres from the surface. At any other time, during a normal working day, they would have been spread throughout four miles of tunnels, meaning that many of them would have been instantly killed.

When the dust settled, it emerged that the miners had access to roughly a kilometre of what seemed to be stable areas of the San José mine. Crucially, that section contained several vehicles, whose batteries they used to power torches. One of those trucks, which had been driven a former Chilean national footballer called Franklin Lobos, also contained a small supply of bottled drinking water.

Their next piece of good luck involved the type of mine they worked in. Copper mines (in which gold is produced as a by-product) are inherently safer than coal ones, which produce potentially-deadly methane. So although ventilation shafts had been blocked during the accident, the men knew that the only way the remaining oxygen was going to be used up was by them breathing it. In other words, time was on their side.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, the 33 miners had a small quantity of emergency food in the corner of their rescue shelter. They also had leftovers from the lunches they had brought down at the start of their 12 hour shift at the small, privately-owned facility in the Atacama Desert, roughly an hour’s drive from the northern city of Copiapo, where most of them lived.

Realising straightaway that the sheer depth at which they were trapped meant it could be days or even weeks until they were located by rescuers, the men embarked on a rigorous rationing system. They would eat just two teaspoons of canned tuna and a biscuit, every 48 hours. Each of these “meals” was to be washed down with two sips of milk.

It was hot in their underground prison – roughly thirty degrees, according to thermometers – but they were able to avoid serious dehydration by supplementing their bottled water by digging a makeshift canal in the floor. By way of a potential last resort, they also drained the radiators of their machinery.

No-one yet fully understands the mood in the mine, during the ensuing 17 days. A second rock-fall, on August 7, closed off a further hundred yards, presumably adding to the sense of foreboding. There is believed to have been bickering over the rationing system, which some deemed too rigorous. But in subsequent letters, “Los 33” say they’ve since vowed never to publicly discuss any of the tensions that arose.

It seems likely, however, that in the stressful conditions, leaders emerged. One such man was Luis Urzua, a 54-year-old topographer. The eldest son from a large Catholic family, who in childhood had helped bring up his younger siblings when his father died prematurely, he was a natural authority figure, and began taking it upon himself to organise the group.

Playing to the machismo of his colleagues – tough men in a hard-scrabble profession – Urzua is believed to have decided that they had a straightforward choice: perish separately, or work together to defy the odds and give themselves the best possible chance of survival. The key to getting themselves out alive, he believed would be “la solidaridad,” meaning: “solidarity.”

Urzua, whose colleagues called him “Don Lucho,” therefore instigated a system by which none of the 33 men could begin eating their tiny meals until all of them had received food. He organised them into three groups, who would venture out, in shifts, to search for signs of any approaching rescue. If nothing else, adding structure to their existence would help pass the time.

At the surface, meanwhile, a frantic rescue operation was underway. At the behest of Laurence Golborne, Chile’s mining minister, and a President who had pledged to spend anything it took to get the miners out alive, experts from the State firm Codelco had assumed responsibility for the search. Using maps of the sprawling mine, they drilled several exploratory boreholes, sending listening devices into areas where they believed survivors might be alive.

For two weeks, nothing. Then, on August 22nd, came yet another break, this time a crucial one. A probe found its way through a wall just yards from the rescue shelter where the men were based. It returned to the surface with a note attached to the end. “Estamos bien en el refugio los 33,” it read [literally: “all 33 of us are well inside the shelter”]. Those first words had been scrawled in capitals on a scrap of paper by Mario Gomez, the eldest of the miners.

In the first hours after they were discovered, a camera was sent down the borehole. It showed the group peering eagerly out of the darkness, shirtless, unshaven and sweltering, but their eyes blazing with euphoria. Their first request, aside from the obvious supplies of food and water, was for toothbrushes.

The rescue teams, meanwhile, swiftly realised that they had two major problems ahead. The first was practical: how to keep the men supplied with sufficient with medication, clothing, meals and drinks to keep them alive during a painstaking operation they initially believed might not be over until Christmas. The second was harder to fathom: how to ensure the men remained psychologically sound and co-operative during an ordeal that would push any human being’s mental endurance to the limit.

A communication system was swiftly designed by Miguel Fortt, a Chilean national and expert in mining rescue operations. He called it “la Paloma” (“the dove”). It consisted of a three meter-long PVC tube, which measured roughly three inches in diameter and would be lowered via cable to the men, delivering them packages containing whatever could be made to fit inside.

At first, each “dove” took four hours to arrive from the surface, and would contain bare essentials: glucose drinks, together with vitamin and mineral supplements. Later, the system was improved. The PVC was swapped with metal tubes, a further two boreholes were drilled, and journey time improved to twenty minutes. That allowed camp beds, communication equipment and clothing supplies to be sent to make the men’s lives more comfortable.

To maintain morale, the rescue team received advice from NASA, which is used to helping grown men live together in confined spaces for extended periods of time. They encouraged the miners to adopt as many of the trappings of normality as possible, sending down dominoes, books and letters and tape recordings from their families, and widening their diet to include tea, sandwiches, fruit, and later hot meals.

Some aspects of their menus were more rigidly controlled. Beans, a staple of many Latin dishes, were excluded from all dishes for exactly the reason you might think, when grown men share a small confined area. A latrine was established a short walk from the areas where they were largely based, which used running water to wash away urine and faeces.

Organised by Urzua, the men were divided into three groups, Grupo Refugio, Grupo Rampa and Grupo 105 - named after the “shelter,” the “ramp” and “Level 105” which are sections of the mine where they slept. They then established shift patterns, carrying out duties such as unloading new “doves,” cleaning their living area, and clearing debris from three rescue tunnels that were being bored into the mine.

When off duty, they slept, exercised (by running or using rubber exercise bans) and sent video, audio, and written messages to their families, who had been living at the surface since early August. Lights shone from 7.30am until 10pm, mimicking daylight. To keep all the trappings of a normal workplace, Urzua used the bonnet of a mine vehicle as his desk, and sent up maps of the area where they were being held.

Urzua wrote each of the men an official job description. Some became “Paloimistas,” unloading the regular supply of “doves.” Others would patrol the mine to check on the structural integrity of its walls. Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest of the group, was the “environmental assistant,” who monitored conditions underground with a handheld computer that measured oxygen, CO2 levels and air temperature,

Other aspects of daily life soon began to fall in place They would shower each morning under a natural waterfall 300 metres up the tunnel, using supplies of shampoo to clean off the orange-coloured mud that found its way almost everywhere. The more religious men – at least two of them “found God” during their ordeal – would take part in a daily prayer organised by Jose Henriquez. Others would listen to uplifting poems written by Victor Zamora, the group’s in-house poet.

It was, of course, very far from plain sailing. Many developed fungal skin infections, and almost all will now require extensive dental treatment. Medical teams at the surface also repeatedly found themselves clashing with some of the miners, whose natural machismo led them to consider the mandatory daily conversations with psychologists to be un-necessary, and perhaps undignified.

They also took exception to the rescue team’s refusal to send supplies of wine and cigarettes down to them, to prevent depression and keep the atmosphere as unpolluted as possible. They also objected to the decision to censor letters from relatives to the men that were thought to be insufficiently optimistic in tone.

At one point, in mid-September, some of the miners effectively went on strike, refusing to speak to their medical handlers. As a result, the psychologists withdrew TV and music that was being provided via the communication system. When the men agreed to speak with them again, a delivery of cigarettes arrived in a “dove.” This carrot-and-stick approach was described by one medic as: “like an arm-wrestle.”

But by that stage, three drills – Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C – were cutting through the roughly 700 metres of rock to reach the cavern where the men were trapped. By early October, they knew breakthrough was imminent. And on Saturday 9th, the Plan B drill broke through. After two months underground, the final stage of their journey to freedom could at last begin.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera was euphoric in the early hours of Wednesday, minutes after the first of 33 miners reached the surface.

“In this rescue operation we Chileans have shown the best of us,” Mr. Pinera told a press conference at the San Jose copper mine. The miners were trapped August 5 by a shaft collapse in this barren northern Chile desert landscape.

He described the experience as “a wonderful night that Chileans and the whole world will never forget.” “Let the miners’ example stay with us forever,” Mr. Pinera said.

Pinera thanked God and the rescue teams for the success of the operation, stressing it was unprecedented in the history of the world for its magnitude and complexity.

Mr. Pinera noted the “magic number 33,” with reference to the number of miners trapped since August 5 at the San Jose copper mine under the Atacama Desert and to the date of the final rescue, October 13, 2010, which when written in numbers and added up also gives 33.

Chilean president Sebastian Pinera has described the operation to free 33 trapped miners as "without comparison in the history of humanity".

President Pinera and the First Lady have been in the Atacama Desert since the evacuation began to personally greet each man as he emerges from the underground chamber.

Florencio Avalos, the first miner to be rescued from the San Jose mine, received a giant bear-hug from Chile's leader.

Speaking after Mr Avalos was freed from the specially made capsule, Mr Pinera said: "The lesson of the miners remains with us forever."

He added that the group had shown "that when Chile unites in the face of adversity, it can achieve great things".

Mr Pinera has become the champion of the miners during this crisis and the right-wing politician has seen his popularity soar.

In a speech at the San Jose mine ahead of the rescue operation, Mr Pinera praised the "strength and bravery" of the men who have been stuck more than 2,000ft below ground.

"I hope the long journey will end very happily," he said.

Mining minister Laurence Golborne's constant presence at the mine has turned him into a national hero and media star.

He has been on hand to hold press conferences, comfort families and even play the guitar around the campfire in Camp Hope.

His dedication has obviously impressed the public - he has 54,000 followers on Twitter and there is even a Facebook group calling for him to run for president in 2014.

Dios bendiga a Chile!

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