The successful rescue of the 33 trapped Chilean miners earlier this month was an incredible feat that managed to uplift, inspire and ultimately unite the entire world – however briefly. Of course, more amazing than the solidarity of a billion people watching on and almost willing the miners to daylight as they emerged one-by-one was the supreme display of solidarity the miners themselves (dubbed “Los 33”) demonstrated throughout their 69-day ordeal.
Against impossible odds – trapped 2,000 feet underground in 92-degree temperatures with little food and almost complete darkness – Los 33 didn’t just survive, but they also provided the broader world with a near-perfect model of a society run on principles of mutual respect, democracy, accountability and teamwork.
Several weeks before the miners were actually rescued, Time ran a fascinating piece “How the Trapped Chilean Miners Are Surviving Underground.” The article reports that with the miners’ ages varying from 19 to 62, the older segment of the group assumed increased responsibility for guiding others. Mario Gómez (age 62) set up a system of three-man buddy teams that constantly looked out for one another, and he also established a makeshift chapel for providing spiritual support. According to The Independent, the group’s foreman, Luis Urzúa (age 54), “split [the miners] into three work parties – Grupo Refugio, Grupo Rampa and Grupo 105 – each with allocated tasks. They would sleep in shifts, deal with the food and letters coming up and down the borehole, and clear any debris caused by the drilling from above. Unless it was moved, more could not come down and the drills would grind to a halt.”
Urzúa also was responsible for rationing the food supply during the first excruciating 17 days of confinement, when it was unclear as to whether they had been left to perish by the outside world. And even after rescuers drilled a hole to reach the group and began lowering food down, Urzúa insisted another system be put into place where no one could start eating until every single miner had first received his meal.
As though struggling for a cultural analog with which to liken Los 33’s impossible situation, several articles published since the rescue have referenced William Golding’s classic novel The Lord of the Flies and its proposition that people will turn on one another in times of extreme duress. “One of the appeals of the story of the Chilean miners is that it appears to contradict that gloomy assessment of our basest instincts,” wrote The Independent’s Peter Stanford, in reference to the Flies analogy.
“If one was down, the others rallied,” miner Mario Sepulveda told the Daily Mail. “Each day a different person took a bad turn. Every time that happened, we worked as a team, to try to keep the morale up. We older ones took care of the younger ones. We knew that if society broke down we would all be doomed. It was important to keep clean, to keep busy, to keep believing we would be rescued.”
But it wasn’t as though the elder of the group ruled over the young, either. Urzúa admitted that the key to Los 33’s survival was making democratic decisions as a unified front. "We took a vote on everything. As long as we had 17 plus one, well that was the majority," he told CNN. Interestingly, most decisions were unanimous, further proof that everyone was working toward the greater good of all involved.
The miracle in the mines may be an extreme example of the powers of group responsibility and accountability, but it’s nonetheless a compelling event we could all stand to draw from in our everyday lives. And with an inevitable analogy already making the rounds that likens the coping of impossible mine conditions to dealing with workplace stress, it at least seems to be a lesson we’re ready to take to heart.