Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chilean Miners

When Copiapó Valley miner, Florencio Ávalos broke surface from the penance of his underground dungeon, the collapsed San José copper-gold mine, ten minutes after midnight, Chilean time, everyone cheered and applauded. I couldn't help myself. From another hemisphere, another time zone, I too clapped and cried for The 33.

Los treinta y tres—a fortuitous number in Latin American history—the equivalent of freedom—the 33 liberators of Uruguay, Jesus's age, and his 33 miracles. But this is indeed a story of miracles. Though I suspect Roger Ebert would take umbrage over my fast and loose use of the word miracle or milagro. Mea culpea. And he's right. But I love the sound of miracle in Spanish. Let's just say it was a miracle of technology and tenacious know-how.

I don't have TV & it blows my mind that I can watch in real time this Chilean rescue mission. Amidst a covey of balloons against a backdrop of inkdark lapis Chilean sky, a tinabulation of church bells and the braying of  zuzuzuelas, or Genesis alarms, on CNN, they're saying their minds are blown… All our minds are blown. And it's a full-blown media circus—imagine 2-3000 media hounds at full bay. Though the media is literally being held at bay some 300 feet from the emerging miners, I can hear fragments of nasal American English twang rising over the din. Izzat Larry King?

The first miner to be rescued, "Florencio Ávalos came back to us on the 13th day of the 10th month of the 10th year of the decade —which adds up to 33," President
Sebastián Piñera said. It's also the numerical equivalent of AMEN: 1+13+5+14=33.

(There's great RTE timeline and photos here).

As he sipped his first breath of pure mountain air, Florencio's smile was "as wide as the Atacama Desert," said one news report waxing poetic. I was expecting a scruffy Tom Hanks in "Cast Away." not this fit, clean-shaven fellow with a blinding smile. Church bells pealed amid the chanting of “Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!” What's that spell? Chile! We've come a long way from the days of General Pinochet.

Circa 1980, I remember listening to Ronnie Gilbert (of the Wavers) and Holly Near (who was from Ukiah), in Sebastopol: Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida en Chile, en Chile, en Chile... Banish the thought of the disappeared, this is about what is found. No one has gone missing. Not anymore. A spirit grows in Chile/ New lives, new songs are rising up. 

Not long after The House of Spirits came out, I first met writer Isabel Allende who was living in exile in Northern California, she affirmed the stories were all true. "The CIA-backed military coup in September of 1973 (that brought Pinochet to power and the assassination of her cousin Salvador Allende) changed everything." Somewhere I've a photo of her holding my chapbook, with John Oliver Simon, Falling to Sea Level, that appeared on the front page of Poetry Flash (1986).

Hard to believe—that NASA space capsule is barely as wide as a man's shoulders. The borehole and ascent to freedom is a mere 28 inches wide and its umbilicus is 2041' feet deep.

The escape capsule descends into Dante's 7th circle of hell. And then some. Rebirth into the light—In an capsule named Fénix 2—Phoenix, Beatrice calls from the depths. She is the fire and the light, her song is the guiding path.

That fragile cable—a slender lifeline. Umbilicus. So much could go so wrong. Steam rises from the vent. Everyone yelling. Echo & answer from the shaft.

One rescue worker keeps saying fantastico! I don't have a translator—I get ¡buey! & ¡cabrón! But not much else. The body language says it all.

When the second miner Mario Sepúlveda was lifted out, he hugged his wife, President Piñera and rescuers, handed out souvenir rocks from his undergound home of 70 days of endless night. Then asked: “Como está la perra?" —"How’s the dog?”

"I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God." On Chilean Independence Day, he danced the cueca—saved from oblivion by poet Violetta Parra. He also celebrated his 40th birthday underground.

I can't believe that Mario brought back souvenir rocks from a half a mile below ground! Chilean miners are the highest paid in Latin America. Probably why there is one Bolivian miner in their midst. Paperweights for the president, he quips.

I am struck with the fact that venir (to come) is embedded within the word, souvenir. And why not? Spanish and French evolved from the same parent language. Though souvenir means memory/memento. Yea, we are coming. We didn't forget, or abandon you underground. Someone planted 33 prayer flags in the desert. The wind licks them with a relentless fury.

Thirty-three miners entered the earth like a lover & emerged in a crown birth—more like a second coming. Doubt they'll want to go underground any time soon. The horror, the horror! I unconsciously invoke Conrad's opening lines in "Heart of Darkness." But this is a heart of darkness too.

San José mine in the northern Atacama Desert  —NASA

Miner # 3, Juan Illanes, looks like Waldo Rojas Serrano‚ an exiled Chilean poet-lover. We are all lovers reunited—as we watch this miracle rescue operation unfurl from all corners of the globe.

The 5th miner, Jimmy Sánchez steps out of the capsule, falls to his knees, spreads his arms wide in a cruciform as if to embrace life. Releases the safety harness with a flourish.

All that is silver and gold, is silver and gold and copper. All that is gold is darkness. The Phoenix capsule takes the miners toward the sky, fire and angels resurrected. From the dark cocooned silence of their underground chamber, miners emerged to a blaze of world attention.

The rain-free Atacama Desert, a 600-mile long plateau (40,600 square miles) is one of the world's most barren places—the driest desert in the world—but it's rich in minerals and iron ore. Having traveled in its northern reaches in Peru, the Sechura Desert and the Altiplano, I can vouch for its extreme dryness—it makes Death Valley and the Mojave Desert seem like an oasis.
Atacama Desert —NASA

My cousin writes from Tralee: the capsule was made in Shannon, County Claire, Ireland. "Hope it is successful in bringing all 33 of them to safety." Some elevator ride. May the luck of the Irish be upon them. The valve that finally capped the hemorrhaging BP oil derrick in the Caribbean was Irish made too.

The 13-foot tall capsule, capable of traveling 1.8 meters (about 6 feet) a second—fast enough to give you the bends—takes 15-20 minutes to travel a half a mile through the earth. The spinning capsule travels fast enough to be an official vomit-comet but NASA stepped in with a special astronaut magic potion. Indeed, it is an open-air mini rocket, repelete with telecommunications camera, oxygen, escape floor hatch, and belay line. The miners wear compression socks—support hose to prevent blood clots and a biometer to record their vital signs. No mention of barf bags.

The capsule may have been Irish made and built by the Chilean Army, but the bore hole was pure American work. The curved 28-inch 2041-foot deep shaft was drilled by an American team: chief driller was contractor Jeff Hart. Jeff was drilling water well in Afghanistan for the US Army when he got a call to deploy to Chile. The Colorado native literally spent 33 days on his feet—drilling. The gold mine is embedded in a sheath of quartzite and silica—rocks so tough that it took all his expertise and skill to keep wayward drills from going off in the wrong direction.
"You have to feel through your feet what the drill is doing; it's a vibration you get so that you know what's happening," said Hart. 
"It was horrible," said Center Rock President Brandon Fisher. Fisher, Stefanic and Hart called it the most difficult hole they had ever drilled, because of the lives at stake." (Read Michael Warren's full story, Driller from Denver becomes Chile Mine Rescue Hero  here.)
All the rescued miners look like movie stars with their Oakley shades—the world's most expensive sunglasses that provide 100% UV protection for the miners' sensitized retinas. The exposure to light must be excruciatingly painful after being underground for ten weeks living like moles.

I watched the rescue mission until late into the night—one of the pulley wheels went bad on the capsule & I thought—Oh Lord, it'll be a long night. It looked like a large polyurethane skateboard wheel, a vertical skateboard ramp straight into hell. The mechanic inserted the guide wheel three times before it seated. One false move, a broken wheel, a fray in the cable nearly a mile long—and all is lost. Please, no ollies. Irish luck is still holding.

The waiting time between emerging miners is longer than forever. Not as long a wait as for the relatives at Camp Esperanza—Hope. We will wait, we will wait. "One for all and all for one," said the Galleguillos brothers waiting above ground for Jorge.

One miner donned a blue hard hat with the word "Vive," meaning "live," scribbled on it. Another had "Díos" printed on the brim of his hardhat. Vaya con Díos indeed.

"Today, October 13, 2010—33 has become a magic number," Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said, "this was a night of high emotion." Today, we are all numinious.

Omar Reygadas knelt to the ground and prayed as he raised a bible towards the sky. Printed on the backs of the miners' Tshirts: "Porque en su mano están las profundidades do la tierra. Y las alturas de los montes son suyas." Psalm 95: In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. On the fronts, a Chilean flag with ¡Gracias, Señor! emblazoned on a field of red.

Some great photos from The Boston Globe.

Victor Zamora the poet and pigeon handler, didn't spend too much time inside the mine, working as a vehicle mechanic. Wrong place, wrong time. I fear he will write dark words that will combust across the page.

The lifeline bore shaft used to deliver messages, water and food and oxygen was called La Paloma—the dove (or carrier pigeon). The blue plastic care capsules themselves—las palomas. A flock of birds from the outside world.

The steady whipping of the cable, a sharp stacatto, a heartbeat of sorts. I am learning the Chilean anthem poco a poco: “Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!”

After embracing his wife, the oldest miner, at 63, Mario Gómez dropped to his knees to the desert floor, and prayed with his hands entwined in the Chilean flag and Bible. He was the appointed spiritual leader who requested a crucifix be sent below so the men could construct a shrine underground. La Virgen del Carmen de Chile smiled upon the miners in starry blue and gold—as she smiled on Bernardo O'Higgins, Liberator of Chile after the Battle of Maipú. The Irish connection in Chile runs deep.

La Virgen del Carmen 
Gómez raised his hands gave a two-thumb up, he will never set foot in a mine again—a place he has worked since he was 12. The day of the cave-in Gómez was getting ready to retire but found himself in the mines to test a new truck. This was his second time being trapped underground. The mines have taken two of his fingers and his lungs—silicosis. He vowed that he will never set foot in a mine again. Ever.

Jorge Galleguillos playfully asked for a guitar to be sent down the air shaft to him. The mining minister wrote back, saying unfortunately they couldn't fit a guitar through the small doved air shaft, but he sent down music to lift their spirits in that unholy cathedral of volcanic stone and ore. Galleguillos emerged from the capsule to a chant of "sing galleta" —a play on his name and a reference to his request for a guitar.

Edison Pena was dubbed "the runner" because he ran 3 miles a day through the mine tunnels to keep himself fit. Running from himself or toward himself—one way or another, he came to terms. Edison. Ah, the light.

And Franklin Lobos, the retired football (soccer) star, who only took the mining job to make ends meet, spins and and the autographed soccerball handed to him by adoring fans—as if he were searching for a secret message. I suspect he'll be permanently retiring from mining too.

Claudio Yanez and Esteban Rojas both proposed to their girlfriends from deep underground. It took Esteban 25 years to take the plunge. Guess the constant heat of the mine (30° celcius) warmed his cold feet.

One family reunion will be strained—Jonni, or Yonni Barrios. Wife put 1 and 1 together and came up with 3 when she heard the mistress cry out her husband's name at a prayer vigil. They came to blows. The Chilean miner-medic, nicknamed Dr. House, was in a tight spot. His house was not in order as wife of 28 years did not attend the rescue. He stood stoic as stone as his mistress kissed him. It was not quite the reunion he had hoped for.

The Phoenix capsules are beginning to look worse for wear. Only a dozen more miners to go. Scuffed and banged up, slender lozenges of steel will pierce the mineshaft at least 38 times each way—that's something like 40 vertical miles of travel in less than 24 hours!

"The greatest wealth of our country is not copper - but our miners," President Piñera said. He praised the miners for showing the country how to endure and thanked the rescue workers for "carrying out a rescue that seemed impossible."

Chile's richest man, and 35th president, Dr. Piñera, was sworn in during the 6.9 Chilean earthquake. "You never surrendered, you never gave up, and today we are harvesting the results," he said to the miners. Of Austurian and Basque descent, Piñera grew up in Belgium and New York, was educated in Chile—top of his class, and he received a Fulbright scholarship in economics at Harvard. He has divested most of his holdings. Here's hoping he will go down in history as a great president like Allende—not Pinochet.

Former miner Richard Trumka said: "It is a rare blessing. I know last night there were tears in every household in Chile, tears of joy when the Earth gives back up those that it has trapped within. Watching these brave miners return to the embrace of their families is an indescribable joy."

My poet friend Sandra Hoben, with whom I've been on a marathon Facebook chat of Joycean proportions throughout the rescue, says she comes from a family of miners, knows firsthand of the hardships suffered. She writes: "The Hobens came from PA, all miners and all the men died, in the mines or from black lung."

Sandra writes: "I am hoping Neruda will arrive, with a glass of red wine, the sea, and his wife's eyes; in Chile, cherries are singing..."

Ah, yes, invoking Neruda. Yes. Death is dressed as an admiral but today he'll get no new followers. Some 23 hours later, the foreman, Luis Urzúa, the last miner, arrives safe & sound.

Luis says, "The worst moment was when I saw the rocks, I thought it was a movie. It took hours for the dust to settle. I thought maybe one, maybe two days—but 70?—a long shift. We hope, never again." The last to leave the mine, Luis holds the Guiness Book of World records for most days trapped underground. The half-moon shines over the Atacama Desert ringing with the miners' rousing national song.

"Never again in our country will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San José Mine, and in many other places in our country," said Piñera. Those responsible for the mine collapse "will not go unpunished. Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility."

From far below, the last five rescue workers hold a cloth sign, "Mision compleda, Chile." Piñera said in closing, "God never gives us a job we cannot do. Tonight we have experienced something we will never forget—full of emotion. We have experienced a kind of rebirth. From the bottom of my heart, Viva Chile!"

Canto XII, from Alturas de Macchu Picchu
(tr. Maureen Hurley—with a little help from Google Translator)

Arise up to be born with me, brother.
Give me your hand from the depths
of your grief.
Never to return from the rocks.
Never to emerge from subterranean time.

Look at me from the depths of the earth...
And tell me from the depths of this long night
As if I was pinned down there with you...

And let me mourn, hours, days, years,
Blind ages, stellar centuries.

Give me silence, water, hope.
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.
Cling to my body like magnets.
Enter my veins and my mouth.
Speak through my words and my blood.

             —Pablo Neruda

©2010 Maureen Hurley


Lynn said...

Lovely post. I will read it again and savor it. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
Lynn Jacobs

P.S. Venir means "to come." Vivir is "to live." Not sure that changes anything, but just for accuracy...

Maureen Hurley said...

Dear Lynn,

Thanks for the comment. RE Venir means "to come". Shoot, I know that! You're right. Blame it on the newness and the overwhelming nature of the event. Or my dyslexia—no way to gracefully fix it....Argh!


Tinsely said...


My apologies. The post has been taken down. I simply re-posted WITH a link to your blog because I enjoyed your writing. I never meant to make it seem as if I was not crediting you. I attempted to make sure everyone who visited my small, personal blog was directed to YOUR blog. I put a disclaimer that the words were NOT my own. Regardless, the post has been removed, and I'm sorry for any confusion or frustration.


Maureen Hurley said...

Dear Tinsley,

Thank you for responding in a timely & appropriate manner to my request to remove my Chilean miner blog piece. While I am honored that you liked my writing enough to re-post it on your blog, the fact that you re-posted it—even as it was being revised— in its entirety onto your blog without my name or blog name, was problematic.

Yes, you posted a link back to my blog. Unfortunately your disclaimer was muddled and indirect. This is what you wrote: "I stumbled upon this blog. Her words really spoke to me, and I hope they speak to you, too." Only the word "blog" was a hyperlink back to my site.

Because there was no identifying information on your blog other than the link to mine, it could easily be construed as plagiarism of my intellectual property.

Also, FYI, posting my entire blog entry on your blog means I can't correct it or add to it, and I also lose a portion of my audience through misdirection. Most of your readers will not follow the link back to my site.

Had you merely asked me, posted a snippet (along with my name—or the blog's name) with a link back to my blog, it would've been a complete non-issue. To refer to another's writing and using a small portion of it is considered fair use.

An architectural magazine in Australia followed proper blog etiquette when they ran one of my blog pieces, but they contacted me first and asked permission.

I did note that you also re-blogged Roger Ebert's Ground Zero mosque blog on your site. But that time you included his name, and the name of his blog so it was CLEARLY his work—and not your own. No matter that you're technically breaking copyright.

In future, as a courtesy, I would suggest that you also contact blog owners and writers BEFORE reposting an entire blog entry. They will be thrilled to tears! Then it's a win-win situation—and it also allows the author to revise said piece!