Chilean Miners Rescue: This is a Rare Moment of Global Joy


Michael White – The Guardian

When was the last time this happened? I’ve been racking my brains. I can think of a few happy ones. Unfortunately most such unifying experiences seen around the planet are negative.

Alas, the world is more often united in grief or horror by modern mass media than it is by joy or a quiet smile of satisfaction on the way to work. So today provides a rare sense of shared enjoyment. The 33 Chilean miners we feared were lost are being saved after all.

I awoke before seven as usual to find that miner No 4 was on his way up and that the Guardian’s Adam Gabbatt and Matt Weaver had been on the case for much of the night.

It’s live on TV and – for once – so it should be. Genuine sympathy prevails over more familiar telly voyeurism, cameras lingering over corpses or weeping women and children.

As expected Florencio Avalos was first out around 4.15am UK time and Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, was there to greet him. So were the waiting families (a mistress as well as a wife in one case) and 2,000 journalists. Hugs, tears, cheers all round, tributes to technical skills and human courage.

When was the last time this happened? I’ve been racking my brains. I can think of a few happy ones. Unfortunately most such unifying experiences seen around the planet are negative.

A massacre or famine in equatorial Africa, a terrifying earthquake in China or Pakistan, those devastating floods – Pakistan again – the “shock and awe” bombing of Saddam Hussein’s military buildings in Baghdad on the first night of the 2003 invasion.

Was the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, caught by thousands of startled amateur photographers, the most remarkable of all such events in the age of 24/7 news available almost everywhere?

It killed 230,000 people in 14 countries and astonished us all because we could both see it – Hollywood horror made real – and easily identify with those holidaymakers, alas more easily than we can with a devastated peasant family’s lost harvest and home.

The tsunami has a competitor, of course, we all know what it is. On 11 September 2001 anyone near a TV set initially intrigued by pictures of an aircraft – a light aircraft, according to first reports – flying into the World Trade towers in New York, were then horrified when a second plane did the same.

“High concept, low tech” was one laconic explanation for the seizure of four aircraft by Islamist nihilists in a plot that – people forget — ended with a 3-1 score line that dreadful day. American passengers on United Airlines 93 took back the plane destined for the White House or Capitol Hill, as brave in their way as the stoical Chilean miners. They did not survive.

A footnote here about global communications. The following evening I was on a late night Radio 5 Live panel chaired by Fi Glover with Henry Porter and others in London, the critic Robert Hughes in New York. We chatted soberly and we then joined a drive-time radio show in Chicago – the evening rush-hour spot in the windy city.

Hey, you guys, why so glum, asked our US radio colleague. The attacks, we replied, rather startled. We covered that extensively yesterday, he replied. US authorities are saying there are only two or three bodies. Lighten up. That’s because up to 10,000 may have been blown to bits or vaporised, one of us explained in an atmosphere of increasing embarrassment in the 5 Live studio.

I can hardly believe I am typing this. But I later obtained a copy of the session and it was as I am describing it. The man in Chicago hadn’t got it. So much for 24/7 global comms, so much for human sympathy. No wonder they didn’t shake much of a leg for the New Orleans floods in 2005.

It cuts both ways. By chance, my wife was away during 9/11, travelling through Pakistan up the Karakoram Highway in a minivan to join the Silk Route across central China. She was with her intrepid Kiwi aunt, then aged 79, now 88 and – as I type – asleep upstairs in our London house on her latest foreign trip. There is no stopping some people.

On 9/11 the minivan party had risen early to watch the dawn rise over the Hindu Kush. On the mountain, a member of the party fiddled with his radio and said: “Oh my God.” Back in town they found a flickering TV set and watched the grainy footage from Washington and New York in disbelief. Kabul, focus of the hunt for villains, was just over the mountains.

“Get into China; you will be safe there,” I recall telling my wife when she got through on a landline. Theirs was the last tour bus to get through as the Chinese army closed the remote border. It may still be closed. But they got it faster in rural Pakistan than they appear to have done in Chicago.

So I may be naïve in assuming the world will be smiling this morning as the Chilean miners each make their hour-long journey to the surface, there to face all the bewildering physical and psychological adjustments which we can all imagine. Have you been down a coal mine or crawled along a two-foot face? I did once and have never forgotten it. I still shudder.

But there are a few such positive events to offset the horrors of the Hiroshima bomb of 1945 – barely understood, yet understood all the same – or the assassination of JFK in 1963 (I remember that) or – so poignant in its way – the cruel death of Diana, the fairy princess.

The release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990 after 27 years in prison must surely be such an occasion when most of us smiled. A rare example of the meek inheriting the earth, the prisoner capturing his jailers and then forgiving them. The bastard … just how mean can you get?

But the most direct parallel which I can conjure up (you may do better) to match this morning’s drama is the flight and plight of Apollo 13 in April 1970.

Intended to land on the moon, it developed a serious fault – as everyone knows who saw the Tom Hanks film of that name – and had to go all the way round and back again to be rescued.

It was a nail-biting week, not quite Chile’s 68 days, but in a far, far more isolated environment, dependent for survival – as today – on technology, human courage and luck.

It all ended happily and the Guardian’s Les Gibbard, who died this week, did a brilliant cartoon which I still have: the skeletal figure of Death casting a butterfly net at the tiny craft as it sped through the star-strewn heavens – and narrowly missing it. Hurrah!

I see one of the rescued miners already asking that the San José 33 not be treated as celebrities. Fat chance, but here’s hoping. Let us savour the moment.


Michael White is assistant editor and has been writing for the Guardian for over 30 years, as a reporter, foreign correspondent and columnist. He was political editor from 1990-2006, having previously been the paper’s Washington correspondent (1984-88) and parliamentary sketchwriter (1977-84)

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