August 5, 2010 was the day some insignificant men doing thankless work would become world-famous. That day portions of the San José Mine in Chile suddenly collapsed. The 120-year-old mine consisted of a miles of sloping tunnel that spiraled into the earth. The men working near the surface were able to escape but 33 men deep in the mine were completely cut off. Rescuers did not know if the men were alive but immediately began working to reach them. After two weeks of work, a borehole poked into an area of tunnel they thought the men might have access to. Mine engineers reported that they heard tapping on the drill bit. They pulled it out and found a note taped to the bit, written in bright red letters:
Estamos bien en en refugio los 33
[we are well here in the refuge, the 33]
The men were all still alive after 17 days. They had organized themselves in a simple democracy under the guidance of the shift leader. They were trapped 2,300 feet underground. They had access to 1.2 miles of tunnels, including a wider shelter area and a machine shop area. They had stretched their 2-3 days worth of emergency rations to last two weeks. They had just run out of food. The oldest member had become the chaplain. He had created a prayer space and was offering counseling to his fellows. Another miner with experience as a pastor organized daily prayers. They asked for Bibles, rosaries, and statues. Pope Benedict sent 33 rosaries to the men. Each day one man would lose it. The rest had to help him hold it together. They communicated with the surface and assisted in their own rescue. One man’s wife gave birth while he was in the mine; she named his baby Esperanza [Hope].
The rescuers sent supplies of food and water down the boreholes and began the rescue attempt. They were going to drill a hole the size of a manhole down to the men and then bring them out one at a time. While the boring got underway, a rescue capsule was designed and assembled. It was a 13-foot-long tube only 21 inches in diameter. It could be lowered down the hole and then winched to the surface bringing out one man at a time.
Finally on October 12, everything was ready. They lowered the rescue capsule down the hole with a rescuer inside it. He got out in the mine and was mobbed by the joyful miners. One at a time he strapped the men into the rescue capsule, gave them a pep talk, and they were winched to the surface. Each trip up the 2,000 foot hole took 15 minutes. They were wearing sunglasses to protect their eyes as they emerged from the darkness into the bright light at the end of the tunnel. They emerged to the applause of the crowd and hugs from family and friends. Raising the men had taken almost 24 hours. Every man was saved. They had spent 69 days underground.
God’s Rescue Operation
This is what our situation looks like, and what God has done for us. This world is like a collapsing mine. It’s made even more unstable by our sins and selfishness. Each day we get news of other areas that have collapsed, or of miners that have snapped from the pressure. At the first news of disaster, God began a rescue operation. He sent down messages through the prophets and made contact with us. Finally, when everything was ready, he sent a Rescuer down into the mine. Christ Jesus stepped out of the womb of the Blessed Virgin to bring us the good news. Last night at the Last Supper, he gave us rations: His Body and Blood to keep us going down here. Today on the cross He gives us his Mother to prepare us for the journey home. Then, in today’s Gospel, he mounts his throne of the Cross and gives his life away for us. He is buried like a King, and now the hole is large enough for us to go home.
Today we must weep, but do not weep for Christ. Weep instead for your sins which caused this world to collapse and brought death into the world. Weep for our loved ones who have fallen to sin and have been claimed by death. Weep, yes, but may those tears wash the dust from your eyes so you can see the truth about this world and recognize your true King who has come to your rescue. He has prepared a rescue capsule for us. We call it the casket. One by one we load our comrades into the rescue capsule and they are winched to the surface. He will not rest until the last of us is rescued.
Church is our ‘Refuge’
Today we gather in a church, which is our refuge. Here we receive our weekly rations of Food and Drink, we get news from above, and we breathe the fresh air of heaven. We must encourage others and help them ‘hold it together,’ for we actively participate in our rescue. Here also we gather to send our loved ones to the surface. We load them into the rescue capsule of the casket and one by one they pass through the tunnel excavated by our Rescuer. And we pray with confidence that as they come to the end of the tunnel, they will see the Light who is Jesus Christ. Be not afraid!
(18 Apr 2014)
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YouTube video of the first two miners rescued: