COPIAPO, Chile — The 36-hour rescue operation of 33 Chilean miners Oct. 13 was a triumph not only of technology, but also of the human spirit. For many of the miners who had been stuck in the San José copper and gold mine for 69 days, the ordeal strengthened their relationship with God. And for many Chileans, whose faith had been tested by a devastating earthquake in February, the rescue was a much-needed shot in the arm.
By all accounts, the men emerged in remarkably good condition after enduring stress levels that could easily have led to nervous breakdowns or group panic.
Instead, what the world saw upon their release was a remarkable display of strength and solidarity, nourished by faith and hope.
From Aug. 5, when the mine collapsed, to Aug. 22, when contact with the outside world was first established through a narrow borehole, the men survived on two days’ worth of rations, the human leadership of their shift supervisor, Luis Urzua, and the spiritual leadership of miners Mario Gómez, a Catholic and the eldest of the group, and José Henriquez, a Baptist preacher.
It was Gómez who thought of creating a chapel where the men could gather to pray.
After a crucifix was sent down for the miners, Chilean Minister of Health Jaime Manalich reported that “the miners are continuing to request more statues of Mary and the saints to construct a makeshift chapel. The miners want to set up a section of the chamber they are in as a shrine.”
Henriquez led the prayer services twice a day, at noon and at 6pm. In their rock-hewn chapel, accompanied by images of Christ and Mary, the men sang hymns and prayed together, asking God to strengthen them and help the rescuers.
The Vatican sent 33 rosaries and 33 small Bibles, which Gómez said were a “literal and spiritual” lifeline for the men.
Protestant groups also got involved, providing the families at Camp Hope and each miner with a T-shirt that said: “To Him be the glory and honor. Because in his hands are the depths of the earth, and the heights of the mountains are His” (Psalm 95:4). The miners wore their T-shirts as they emerged from the rescue capsule one by one.
‘Here I Learned to Pray’
Several of the miners reported that they felt the presence of God accompanied them in an almost tangible way.
“There are actually 34 of us,” said 19-year-old Jimmy Sánchez, “because God has never left us down here.”
On Aug. 31, Mario Sepulveda sent up a message to his loved ones, saying, “We 33 miners are walking hand-in-hand with God.”
Later, he would add, “I was with God. I was with the devil. God and the devil were fighting over me, and God won. I seized the hand of God.”
Richard Villaroel said, “We had a boss. … Every day he would tell us we had to be strong. Strength comes from internal energy and prayer. I never used to pray, [but] here I learned to pray. I got closer to God.”
The faith below ground was matched by the intensity of prayer and fellowship at Camp Hope, where relatives and friends kept a day-and-night vigil for their loved ones.
As the men emerged from their underground prison, the expressions of gratitude and faith were spontaneous.
Holding his Bible, Omar Reygadas knelt down to pray as soon as he emerged from the rescue capsule. His first words: “God lives.”
Esteban Rojas also dropped to his knees and made the Sign of the Cross, praying alongside his wife, whom he had promised to marry in the Church after 25 years of civil marriage.
Meanwhile, the rescue also drew thousands of Chileans to churches to give thanks for the rescue. For some, it was a reminder that God has not abandoned Chile after the earthquake that struck just off the coast of Chile’s Maule region this past Feb. 27. Measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, the devastating earthquake had prompted some public commentators to question where God was in Chile’s hour of tragedy.
But on Oct. 13, the commentators were not shy about acknowledging the hand of God in the rescue.
As President Miguel Juan Sebastián Piñera put it, what “started as a possible tragedy” turned out to be “a real blessing from God.”
It is perhaps no coincidence that some of the most significant dates in the rescue operation took place on Catholic feast days.
The first contact with the miners was established on Aug. 22, the feast of the Queenship of Mary. It was on that day that the families and relatives received a handwritten note in red ink stating simply, “The 33 of us are fine in the shelter.”
The final phase of the rescue operation unfolded all day and into the night on Oct. 13, the anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima’s final apparition, when 70,000 people witnessed the miracle of the sun.
The feast day for the patron saint of miners, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, fell on Sept. 28, while the men were trapped underground. St. Lorenzo was also the namesake for a bold new rescue plan introduced on Aug. 28. Operation St. Lorenzo sped up the rescue by several months.
“We prayed to St. Lorenzo, the patron saint of miners, and to many other saints,” said Priscila Avalos, whose two brothers were rescued from the mine.
“It is as if they had been born again.”
Register correspondent Trish Bailey de Arceo writes from Veracruz, Mexico.