The True Strength Of The Human Spirit

As a good news story, it can’t get much better than the unfolding miraculous rescue of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days.

The fact they they all emerged looking remarkably fit and well after their ordeal is also a testament to their own resilience and courage as well as the incredible effort of the rescue team in keeping them alive and in good shape.

I don’t think any of us could possibly imagine what it must have been like for these men. Hopefully none of us will ever have to endure anything remotely similar to what they did. And once all the euphoria and celebration of their rescue has died down, one wonders how these men and their families will come to terms with having survived this ordeal.

As someone who has always suffered from a fear of heights (two rungs up a ladder and I’m stuck) and correspondingly a fear of depths, I am not likely to ever venture down any mineshaft or cave of any sort, let alone 625 metres underground. But even for these men who were used to being and working underground, one wonders what they were thinking, especially in the first seventeen days when they didn’t even know whether anyone was actually looking for them.

We have all witnessed stories of endurance and survival and wonder what does it take in order to survive. What are the key traits or thinking processes that can make a difference between living and not living?

Listening to the reports from Chile it appears that a number of factors would have worked in the men’s favour.

Leadership

The shift supervisor Luis Alberto Urzua Irribarren, who was the last man brought back up to the surface was credited as the person who kept the group together mentally especially during the first 17 days when none of them knew whether there would ever be a rescue.

“We have done what the whole world was waiting for,” he said after emerging from the rescue capsule. "The 70 days that we fought so hard were not in vain. We had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing."

It was his leadership and belief that rescue would come that would have contributed to the whole group surviving. There must have a been a lot of fear, a lot of thinking that perhaps there would be no rescue and that they would all die in their entombed state. It takes great strength of character to push through those negative emotions and to remain as he said “fighters” for life.”

Problem-solving for survival.

In order to survive the men would have needed oxygen, food and water. They had oxygen; the next hurdle was to have sufficient food and water.

They had water, which they obtained from a piece of equipment that was water-cooled. Because of the heat, they would have needed to drink water to maintain basic hydration. They had food too, from an underground store. Because they didn’t know how long they would be trapped, they rationed their supplies to make them last. They allowed themselves two spoonfuls of tuna; half a cookie and half a glass of milk every 48hours for those first 17 days.

Routine and organisation.

Once they knew that authorities knew they were alive and would be working to get them out, they were able to organise themselves into groups who would take turns sleeping or working shifting rock that was required to help in their rescue. Fortunately space was not an issue and the men were able to organize an area to use a chemical toilet and latrines. They scheduled meal times and received food from the surface sent down in small plastic tubes. They were able to install lights to simulate night and day and undertook obligatory exercises to help themselves keep fit ready fro their eventual rescue. Following routines and maintain an order to their days would have helped psychologically to keep their mental state stable and optimistic.

Having a Positive Attitude

One of the keys to survival is having an expectation of survival. That thought that no matter what, everyone will band together and pull through. By remaining positive we maintain our mental resilience and are far better placed to cope with hardship and uncertainty. The video camera and pictures showed the men engaged in playing card games and undertaking activities to take their mind off their predicament. Being part of a group helped too; as isolation means having to battle one’s own mind which is a much tougher ordeal to deal with, when battling for survival.

Having Patience

Imagine you have already been stuck down there for 17 days, then you get the news that people now know you are alive and will be attempting to rescue you. The immediate response would be “Get me out of here now!” However they then had to wait another agonising52 days before that happened. Because of the difficulty and danger associated with the rescue operation the authorities initially deliberately didn’t tell the trapped miners how long they thought it might take to get them out, in order to prevent panic and despair. These men however would have had a good idea about the likely complexity and difficulty the rescue operation was going to entail. Perhaps that made it easier for them to accept the long wait.