The whole world held its breath this week as rescuers brought all 33 of the Chilean miners who had been trapped below ground since Aug. 5 back to their family and friends on the surface. As the men emerged one by one from the rocket-shaped rescue capsule that had ferried them back to the living, there was a sense among everyone who followed the event broadcast live on cable TV and the Internet that a miracle had occurred, albeit one made possible only by cutting-edge engineering and technology.
The 70 days the miners spent in their underground prison half a mile beneath the desert floor made them the longest-surviving victims of a mine cave-in in history. For the first 17 days after the mine shaft they were working in collapsed they were completely cut off from the outside world, even as rescuers on the surface frantically searched for signs of survivors and the wives of the trapped men rushed to the site to start a vigil for their safe return.
The world didn't learn the miners were still alive until Aug. 23, when a tiny exploratory borehole finally breached the rock of their underground chamber. In messages to the surface, the men explained they had managed to survive on two spoonfuls of tuna and a sip of milk every 48 hours and maintained discipline by strictly following the orders of their shift foreman.
Once they were found, freeing the men required an international effort that included hundreds government officials, Red Cross workers, mine safety and drilling experts and even American NASA scientists, whose experience with the medical issues involved in long space flights helped them advise rescuers at the mine about the physical and mental health effects of prolonged isolation and confinement. The Chilean government ultimately adopted the plan of an American company to bore a 26-inch diameter hole in the volcanic rock and bring the men up in a high-tech steel capsule just wide enough for their shoulders to fit into.
During the six weeks it took to drill the large hole, the men received rations of food, clean clothes, letters and other creature comforts lowered through the borehole that first found them. They conversed by fiber optic video with doctors on the surface who monitored their health, and they engaged in regular exercise to keep their muscles from weakening.
By the time the first miner emerged from the rescue capsule late Tuesday evening, rescuers were optimistic that the remaining men could be brought to the surface relatively quickly. Although the government originally estimated the mission could take up to 36 hours to complete, the last miner to reach safety was rescued only about 24 hours later. To an astonished world, suddenly shrunk to the dimensions of a global village by the mass media of instant communications, it was the kind of unambiguously happy ending everyone had been hoping for yet few had dared to expect.