The Plastic Hippo

October 15, 2010

Thunderbirds are go

Filed under: World — theplastichippo @ 10:44 pm

There are very few reasons to be cheerful at the moment and the future is looking grim. But those of us old enough to remember the days before General Augusto Pinochet made people “disappear” in Chile will now be rejoicing at the dramatic re-appearance of 33 copper miners from below the Atacama desert. Thunderbirds and International Rescue were not works of science fiction after all.

Brought up on live moon landings, early Pink Floyd, late Jimi Hendrix and Tomorrow’s World just before Top of the Pops on Thursday nights, our generation still carries the bitter disappointment of not having a personal jet-pack by now or not being able to take holidays on Jupiter. Instead of x-ray specs and transporter beams, we face cold calls from stair lift salesmen, the destruction of the health and pensions system and some slimy little posh boy taking away winter fuel allowances and bus passes. But Jeff Tracy and his brave sons are alive and well and turned up in a barren and hostile landscape to rescue those who must have feared that they were well and truly lost.

Even the most cynical, hard-hearted curmudgeon must have bitten a lip and wiped away a tiny tear as the men were brought to the surface and reunited with their families. Emerging from the earth like rock stars in Ray-Bans, the miners caught the attention of the planet and their heroism has been justifiably recognised. Leaving behind a death-trap hell-hole, they now enter a world of celebrity. But the others, those that made it happen, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John left the site with their fantastic machines and their anonymity in tact.

The engineering involved in the rescue is nothing short of breathtaking. Just finding these men half a mile below the desert is an astonishing achievement but to then drill down and bring them out safely is beyond even the capabilities of Thunderbird 2. Nothing like this has been attempted before and whilst not exactly planned on the back of a beer mat, this was basic, hands-on engineering at its best. The risks were huge and the danger of dropping millions of tons of granite onto the trapped men was ever present. The engineers did what they do best; they looked at the task, worked out a way of doing it, thought about the things that could go wrong and then got on with it.

When the shackle that was to attach the cable to the capsule did not quite fit, it was made to fit using bits of wood, spanners, a steel chisel and a bloody big lump hammer. The precision required to locate the capsule into the shaft on its first descent was guaranteed by a few deft kicks from hob nailed boots. These guys were the real heroes and they walked away with the silent satisfaction of knowing that they had brought 33 other human beings back from the dead.

The triumph of science in general is also the triumph of Chile as a nation. At last its people can emerge from the shadow of Pinochet and the “suicide” of Allende in 1973. There persists a popular myth that Allende met his death by walking out alone onto the steps of the presidential palace to face the surrounding C.I.A. special forces. It has been alleged that he was carrying a gold-plated Kalashikov that was a gift from Fidel Castro. What a way to go.

Pinochet died under house arrest in 2006 after being forced out of his Sunningdale mansion to return to Chile to face charges of murder and torture. No more tea with Mrs T or rounds of golf with Brucie and Tarbie and no justice for the families of the disappearos. In the high Atacama, his Caravan of Death was replaced by the media caravan that brought us real time images of the rescue.

Like the engineers, Chilean state television handled the crisis with consummate skill and everything went perfectly. However, even normally respectable broadcasters including our own BBC could not resist focusing on the sensational tittle-tattle of the private lives of the miners. The complicated love life of one Yonni Barrios took precedence over the human miracles unfolding before our eyes and the media considered a mistress more important than a mine shaft. Yonni need not worry. After his wife has had her say, he is likely to be played by Antonio Banderas with George Clooney as his shift leader when Hollywood secure the film rights.

It is doubtful that the reporters on the scene even considered the irony of the possibility that their words and opinions might be being transmitted through the very copper hewn from the depths of the earth below their feet. Some even postulated that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to enhance the popularity of President Sebastian Pinera, universally described as a right-wing media billionaire. This, though, was no stunt.

Everybody won. The miners are able to see the sky again, their children can see their fathers again, Il presidente is now seen as a world leader for displaying such commitment and Chile has stepped out of the darkness and onto the global stage. Viva Chile – muy bien.

Almighty God has been credited for this miracle but the men and women who planned and drilled and worked around the clock to save these men remain unknown. Theirs is the quiet triumph of engineering and the triumph of humanity.


1 Comment »

  1. Excellent piece … thank you. I wrote this on FB on Thursday ….
    IMHO Rescue Team Hero No. 1 was Jeff Hart. He was drilling for water in Afghanistan for the US army when he was called to the the mine disaster in Chile. His job? To take charge of the mighty Schramm T130 drill; he has the reputation for being the best in the world at drilling large holes with the T130. He spent 33 days overcoming all kinds of difficulties before he finally broke through to the trapped miners.
    I notice that they didn’t all wear the “Gracias Señor” Thank you God T-shirts with Jesus on the sleeve. On the back is Psalm 95:4 — “In his hand are the depths of the earth and the mountain peaks belong to him. etc. etc.” Better by far had the T-shirts said “Thanks to Layne Christensen & Geotech” for getting us out of here.
    And what about the winch operator … their lives in his hands as he hauled each of them out of the mine.

    Comment by ziksby — October 16, 2010 @ 12:49 am | Reply

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