Is there any other word to describe the drama that the world watched? For 69 days, 33 miners were buried underground under almost half a mile of rock, and then ascended, slowly, to the surface to be freed from their dark tomb under the glare of television lights and into the embrace of their rescuers and the president of Chile.
It was a surreal and metaphorically rich scene: men who in any other time would have been dead, stepping one by one out of their coffin-sized capsule wearing sunglasses like rock stars from beyond the grave, from the center of the earth.
It was estimated that more people watched the rescue than watched the World Cup. It was a global-sized version of reality TV: an international rescue effort in the middle of a Chilean desert that had back stories galore — children being born, marriages promised, affairs revealed.
In many ways, the almost miraculous rescue of “Los 33” was the pinnacle of modern communications. It allowed for around-the-clock coverage, an awesome assembly of technology and human ingenuity, personalized by the various miners illuminated in the ghostly glow of the television cameras as their images were beamed to us from the center of the earth. Their families became a Greek chorus, crying tears of pain and tears of joy before a worldwide audience as they prayed for rescue.
And in the end, seeing a young son run crying to the father he had not seen for so many weeks, seeing the embraces of couples who never knew if they would embrace again — it would be a stone heart indeed that would be left unmoved by this drama.
Yet the sheer quantity of attention the rescue effort merited, in comparison, say, to the floods in Pakistan that roughly coincided with the beginning of the mine disaster, begs for further reflection. In Pakistan, tens of millions were left homeless and thousands drowned in the worst flooding in years, yet that devastation never merited similar coverage. There was no dramatic story that the world hung on. Or perhaps there were too many stories. The Pakistan floods, which at one point covered one-fifth of the country, were simply beyond human imagining. In its Imax scale of horror, it lacked the claustrophobic television drama of 33 men waiting in darkness as drill bits ground toward them for more than two months.
Being buried alive can concentrate the mind terrifically. Men who were not religious before became religious. Those who were already, became more so. One man talked about God wrestling with the devil, and God won. Despite stereotypes, not every man in that tomb was Catholic, but all signed a flag for the pope, and all accepted rosaries blessed by the pope. There are no atheists trapped in mines.
We know that not every story in life has a happy ending, which may be why we so value this story. There will be a book, and a movie. But, of course, the story is not over. The miners will be forever changed. Money and a kind of fame will come their way, and some will no doubt handle it better than others. What lessons these 33 men will have learned about leadership, patience, survival and fear are yet to be seen, but they will surely never be the same.
As for the rest of us, before we change the channel or move on to the next crisis, it would behoove us to consider what we would have learned when everything we counted on, everything we lived for, was suddenly beyond our grasp, lost in darkness, and we only had ourselves and God. Would we have the utter trust that, no matter the ending, God would be with us in the very darkest cave that we could ever find ourselves in? Would we have faith in the Resurrection, even when we didn’t know how the story would end?
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.