Trapped Chilean Miners and survival via mentors


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Mining Headgear

Exactly one year ago today news emerged that 33 men were trapped in the San Jose copper-gold mine, Chile. Their rescue after 69 days spent underground is one of the most remarkable survival stories of our age. Jimmy Sanchez, one of ‘Los 33’, was just 19 years old. Another, Samuel Avalos, a father of three, had worked in the mine for a mere five months.

I was 16 years old when I started working underground as a coal miner at Grimethorpe pit in South Yorkshire. I can still remember how terrified l felt stepping into the metal cage, 120 of us huddled together as it hurtled down through the pitch black at 8 metres per second to our destination 3000 feet below. We then had to walk for 30 minutes to reach our place of work. The shock of the dirt, the dark, the noise, plus the feeling of utter isolation, has never left me. If something went seriously wrong, I was convinced we would never get back out. The thought of spending 10 weeks trapped underground, as the Chilean men did, is the stuff of nightmares.

Being in such a potentially lethal environment with limited experience leaves you vulnerable to a whole range of threats. Fortunately, we had a mentor. Trevor had spent many years working in different parts of the mine and could highlight the most common causes of injury, the black spots. Inevitably, as we worked, we were exposed to danger, but Trevor was a sounding board; someone to ask the important questions of. He also instilled in us the importance of a team ethic and how to respect each other, which in turn engendered feelings of great trust. The Chilean miners had the experienced Luis Urzua.

Those first few months underground taught me the value of good mentors. A good mentor can invigorate the team spirit, helping a group to relish the task ahead no matter how daunting it might seem initially. Mentors also provide support, helping novices to develop the skills that allow them to tackle new and challenging tasks. Trevor helped us to mature into responsible members of a team able to cope with the stresses of our environment.

Just after I quit my job as a miner an explosion occurred at the coal face in the Fenton seam where I had worked. Fortunately, no one was killed, but it underlined the inherent dangers of deep mining. I am sure Jimmy Sanchez found great comfort in having older, more experienced miners close by during those 69 dark days.

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