Wednesday, 13 October 2010

A Chilean Fairytale

I stayed up until 5am this morning to watch the start of the Chilean mining rescue mission. I'm so glad that I did and even in my small way here in Cardigan, in years to come when the world looks back at what is one of its greatest achievements, I'll be able to say 'I was there'.

Forget the talk of tuition fees, October 12th 2010 will go down in history throughout the world, and in Chile in particular, as the day when a great tragedy was turned around to become a human triumph for 33 men and for mankind.

Chile's Finest Hour
I've been memerised my this developing story ever since that face was seen pressed up against the camera that had been sent down to find signs of life after the mine collapse on August 5th. After 17 days of expecting the worse, suddenly, there was jubiliation at the knowledge that the miners were still alive. Since then, there's been the slow but gradual progress towards getting them back to safety.

I wasn't going to miss the start of this rescue operation so I've been awake all night, watching the excellent live coverage on BBC News 24. Its been a humbling, moving, emotional, wonderful experience.

Because this really does touch us all. Yes, they're miners and this is what they do, but no-one has ever survived being effectively buried alive in this way for such a length of time. When the final miners come up tomorrow, they'll have been down there, over 600m below ground in an air-less cavern, for 70 days.

A 19th century Disaster in a 21st century world
What has made this disaster turned fairytale something unique from past experiences of hope over adversary, is the fact that technological advances have meant that we've been far more in touch with the minutiae of developments. We've been able, for example, to watch the miners in their 'new' homely surroundings, deep underground during their incarceration. We've been able to see the messages that have been sent down to them below from loved ones. We have watched as the President held aloft to the camera for his father to see, the new born baby born above ground to a miner, half a mile below it. We have watched as a quiet Chilean corner has suddenly become the centre of the media universe. Has the South American continent ever seen anything like this level of world-wide coverage since the days of the Falklands War in 1982 or the days of Eva Perón in the immediate post-war days of the late 40's and early 50's?

This has surely put Chile on the map for the best of reasons. Not since the days of General Pinochet has this nation found itself caught in the glare of public interest. Thankfully, as opposed to those dark days of the 70's and 80's, this time it's there for the right reasons.

Florencio Avalos - A Name for the Ages
The sight of the first rescued miner, Florencio Avalos, making it back to the surface at 4am this morning in that tiny, remarkable capsule, Phoenix 2, was incredible. It was not just the arrival back of the first of the miners, but it was the knowledge that this feat of engineering had worked to rescue one of the miners and therefore gave the families waiting in 'Camp Hope', the confidence that it would do the same for the remaining 32.

Florencio looked so calm and physically strong on his return after such an ordeal. An incredible sight. But what we all wanted to see, was the happy reunion between father and family. We weren't let down and I for one have to admit to sheding quite some tears at this moment of ecstasy, joy and relief.

10 saved, 23 to go
We're not finished yet of course. At the time ot typing, 10 of the miners have been winched to safety. There's still another 23 underground as well as the technical and medical support down there. But each one is being greeted at the surface like a conquering hero - and rightly so.

It will be difficult for them to cope with the sudden media celebrity that they have unwittingly found themselves thrust into. They never planned for this - but this is what they'll have to deal with. Each individual is a human story in his own right and I can see Hollywood types rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of turning this event into a feel-good action movie. After all, who could have made this up? This is far better than fiction.

Well done BBC
Speaking of the media, I must say that the BBC coverage last night has been particularly impressive. It's been informative but also compassionate. I was particularly impressed at the abilitiy of its two reporters, Matt Fri and Tim Wilcox to interview family members and local names of note in their native Spanish tongue. This was certainly much more impressive than the crass 'Miners Rescued - 0 of 33' scorecard that has been displayed on Sky News which has irked me greatly.

Mankind's Finest Hour?
This is a human story without parallel. This has been the story of triumph over adversary. The story of everyday miners who through no fault of their own will now become worldwide celebrities. A story of human engineering ingenuity to beat unbelievable odds. A story of patience, courage and hope. A story of mankind at its best.

It has been a sobering few hours. When you stand back and realise what has been achieved here, it really does take the breath away. I'm a historian, so I do tend to look at global events such as this with the wider perspective of history. I can honestly say that in years to come, mankind will look back at this rescue mission with great pride as one of it's defining moments.

We went to the moon, we built the pyramids, we witnessed the works of Shakespeare and Schubert's Ave Maria, we developed modern medicine and vaccinations, we climbed Everest, we learnt how to fly and we learned with science through the likes of Aristotle, Newton and Einstein of the nature of human existence.

I feel that we can now proudly add to that list of achievements the fact that we, mankind, also managed to rescue miners, after 69 days of incarceration, from a living Chilean hell.

Well done Chile - this has been your finest hour.

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