How the Chilean Miners Are Surviving Underground

The drama of 33 Chilean miners facing months of underground imprisonment is a real-time experiment in how the human mind, body and spirit adapt to such an ordeal

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Lorenzo Moscia / abacausa.com

Video grab from the first video showing three of the 33 miners inside the San José gold and copper mine, in Copiapó, Chile, on Aug. 30, 2010

Update Appended: Sept. 17, 2010

You wouldn't think it to look at us, but human beings love to cooperate. We argue, we brawl, we go to war, but give us half a chance and we also join hands in cooperative societies. We do it in the workplace, we do it in a theater queue, we do it even in preschool, where a group of small children will instinctively form a complex internal culture — opaque to anyone outside it but essential to anyone who's part of it.

Never is the impulse to confederate more powerful than during a crisis. And nowhere is it in greater evidence at the moment than 2,300 ft. (700 m) below Chile's Atacama Desert, where 33 miners have been trapped since Aug. 5 and face up to four more months of confinement before they're freed— though rescuers are increasingly optimistic that the job could be done as early as mid-October. Most such rescue operations are sprints, but this one is a marathon, already exceeding the record 25 days logged by a group of Chinese miners in 2009. The world is transfixed by the unfolding drama, but psychologists and anthropologists are taking special note, watching for what the crisis can tell us about human behavior and the ways we react when emergencies obliterate familiar rules and temporary societies must emerge in their place.

"Every stressor known to man is having an impact on those miners," says Duke University psychologist John Fairbank, an expert on traumatic stress. "What we're seeing them do now is trying to normalize their situation, giving it a routine, a structure and a purpose."

Normalizing an abnormal situation is one of the first things we all do in a crisis — and it's a very adaptive strategy. A blackout hits a city, and we immediately begin running a mental inventory of the batteries, bottled water and nonperishable food we've got in the house, calculating how to get the kids fed and bathed and press on in as ordinary a way as possible. Rescue workers in Chile, who have been maintaining 24-hour shifts, have done a good job of helping the miners do the same, using three narrow boreholes to lower them what they need to make their 538-sq.-ft. (50 sq m) hole a home.

The workers have sent clean clothes, reading material, dominoes and letters from loved ones. They've provided music as well as phone contact with family members. The miners' menu — which at first consisted of nothing but nutrient drinks — now includes yogurt, cereal, tea, sandwiches, kiwis and, recently, hot meals like meatballs with rice. Beans were held back for just the reason you'd think when 33 men are living in a confined space — one more way the decorous rules of the surface are being observed below. "The key is to create civil order in a circumstance in which there is none," says Colonel Tom Kolditz, a psychologist and behavioral scientist at West Point and author of the book In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended on It.

The need for normality is only the second most powerful driver of behavior in a crisis, however. The first is what Kolditz calls "mortality salience." For everyone, death is inevitable, but most of the time we think of it as eventual. If that changes — if death seems possibly imminent — behavior changes too. "When you fear for your lives," says Kolditz, "you pull together."

The exact way people do that is often a function of age. Shortly after communications were established between the men and the surface, Dennis O'Dell, director of occupational health and safety for the United Mine Workers of America and a veteran of 20 years in the shafts, told TIME, "Leaders will start to emerge, and if they see someone slipping, they'll try to pick them up. The younger guys will probably defer to the older ones."

That's just what's happening. The youngest of the miners is only 19. The oldest, Mario Gómez, is 62. He has assumed the role of coordinator, organizing the group into three-man buddy teams so they can all look after one another and serving as liaison to the surface. He has also set up a makeshift chapel to offer spiritual support. Another senior miner, Luis Urzúa, 54, coordinates the work schedules — which will soon include clearing the tons of rubble that will be produced as the rescue shaft is drilled. Urzúa uses the hood of a mine vehicle as a desk — an important totem of the workplace. He has also established a rule that no one may eat until all 33 men have received their food.

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