The October 13 rescue of the 33 miners trapped for 69 days in a subterranean dungeon of the San Jose mine in Atacama was one of the most moving, exciting and literally uplifting moments the world has seen in years. For a day, the people of the whole world were united through television and the internet with Chilean families in the northern Chilean desert, as we nervously watched the trapped miners and then their heroic rescuers get lifted one-by-one through a 40-inch hole hewn in a half-mile of unforgiving rock. Our eyes were transfixed on the huge wheel controlling the cable attached to the rescue capsule, rejoicing that it was moving when it should have been moving and that it had stopped when it should have stopped. We were privileged to have been allowed, by technology, to accompany miners’ three closest family members and the Chilean president to welcome each one as they came from darkness into the light. On a day in which the miners’ lives were turned right-side-up, the world was turned upside down, as humble, hardworking, unknown miners from South America became household names, with their photos, personalities and close family members known throughout the globe. For a day, the world became a small Chilean family.
One of the most striking things for many watching was how physically and psychologically strong the rescued miners appeared after so many days underground and after a dangerous ride through 2200 feet of rock. Television commentators tried to come up with material explanations for how well they were, like praising NASA for developing special food and drinks or American companies for designing special socks to prevent fungus in the mine and the formation of blood clots on the ascent. Without a doubt these inventions and others made a difference, but it would be hard to deny that the fundamental reason why the miners were in such good shape overall was spiritual.
For most if not all of the miners, the 69 days underground was a life-changing spiritual experience. It’s hard to imagine for most of us what it would be like to be trapped under a half-mile of rock for 17 days in utter darkness, surviving on a half-a-cap full of tuna a day, wondering as the days went on whether people would continue or abandon the search, whether the underground refuge would in fact become a starvation chamber and mass grave. To say the least, it was a supremely stress-filled situation that could easily have brought out the worst in the miners. Part of the reason it didn’t was the strong leadership of shift foreman Luis Urzua, who imposed a system of rations and assigned tasks to keep not only exterior order in the mine but interior order in the miners. But it seems that the main reason that the miners didn’t turn on each other is because they turned together in prayer to the Lord, who was the one person they knew realized they were alive and the one person, more than any other, whom they trusted would never give up on their rescue.
The witness of the miners’ faith was outstanding. During the initial 17 days, the men were regularly led in prayer by Mario Gore Messes, at 63 the oldest of the miners who proved himself to be a spiritual elder in the most trying of circumstances. When they were eventually discovered, knowing that it would still take months for them to be set free, the miners asked that a crucifix, statues of Our Lady, St. Lawrence and other saints be sent down so that they could set up a shrine in their 538 square-foot refuge. Rosaries blessed by the Pope were sent down. Miniature bibles with magnifying glasses were transported. Mp3 players with audio recordings of the life of Jesus came down. Prayer groups formed. Their involuntary entrapment became, in many ways, a 69-day retreat. Jesus had once promised that wherever two or more were gathered in his name, he would be present in their midst (Mt 18:20). The miners gathered themselves in the name of Jesus and they could feel his presence. As the youngest miner, 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez said, “There are actually 34 of us, because God has never left us down here.” They felt God’s presence with them, and for that reason never felt abandoned. As Mario Gore Messes wrote to his wife in his famous “Dear Lila” letter early after their rediscovery, “I want to tell everyone that I’m good and that we’ll surely come out okay. Patience and faith. God is great and the help of my God is going to make it possible to leave this mine alive.” Mario Sepulveda, the charismatic second miner brought to the surface, talked about the temptations he underwent in the mine and how his faith in God not only triumphed but was strengthened. “I was with God and I was with the devil. But God won. I held onto God’s hand. At no point in time did I doubt that God would get me out of there.” He added, “We always knew that we would be rescued. We never lost faith.”
Many of the miners faced a similar choice between God and the devil, and several, like Sepulveda, reach out for God in conversion. Carlos Barrios wrote to his cousin Alonso, who was holding vigil for him in Cape Hope, that he never had considered himself religious before these events, but added, to the joyful tears of his relative, “Cousin, now I believe in God. I believe completely!” Jimmy Sanchez wrote his girlfriend, “God wanted me to stay here. I don’t know, maybe so I change from now on. I have thought, and I will change a lot.” Esteban Rojas, after having received a note from his civil wife of 25 years expressing her hope that once he was rescued, they would finally have their marriage convalidated in the Church, replied: “Jessica, thanks for your concern and for praying that we are all right. I love you all… When I get out, we’ll buy a wedding dress and get married in the Church!” As soon as Rojas left the rescue capsule, in a gesture that moved the world, he knelt down, blessed himself and prayed, and Jessica presented him with an image of Our Lady — both signs that they were now intent on grounding their love in the practice of the faith.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera was not shy in ascribing the rescue not just to the ingenuity of so many experts from several countries who participated in the rescue efforts, but also in the prayers of the miners, their family members, their friends, Chileans and people united in prayer across the world. Basing himself on the words Jesus said in the Gospel about the power of faith as small as a mustard seed, he thanked all those who had prayed for a successful outcome and exclaimed, “That faith ended up moving mountains!”
Such overt credit to God — emphasized by so many miners coming to the surface proudly wearing t-shirts saying “Gracias, Señor!” — bothered some observers. As one commentator said, “Miners, engineers, astronauts, rough necks, bureaucrats and others spend 69 days, millions of dollars and immeasurable angst rescuing 33 men. Who gets credit? God. I’m curious what God would have done without those miners, engineers, astronauts, rough necks, bureaucrats and others!”
One of the chief rescuers, Greg Hall, whose company Drillers Supply International bore the successful “plan B” channel to rescue the miners, talked explicitly about the role God played. After 17 days of drilling, he said, the drill got stuck, and after trying everything, there was nothing technical they could do. Hall, who hopes to be ordained a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Houston in February, said he just started to pray, asking God to do what human means couldn’t. Soon afterward, the drill bit loosened and they were able to complete the rescue mission. When he was done, experts and colleagues told him that his project was technically impossible and they had no idea how he had succeeded at all, not to mention in just six weeks. Hall commented, “I know that there are miracles. But you know what? Now everybody knows!”