“Dear Lord, never let me be afraid to pray for the impossible.” Dorothy Shellenberger
2 p.m. August 5, 2010 – Copiapo, Chile: The 120-year-old San Jose gold and copper mine 28 miles north of Copiapo, Chile, had been groaning for several months. Management reassured miners that everything was safe, but at 2 p.m. on that Thursday afternoon hundreds of tons of rock collapsed, effectively sealing the mineshaft and trapping 33 men a half-mile beneath the earth’s surface.
A few hours after the dust settled, all the trapped miners made it to a 16 x 40-foot safe zone at the 2,300-foot level. Amazingly none were injured. The mine collapse destroyed the electrical, ventilation, water and communication systems, leaving the miners with only a small amount of food and water, a rudimentary lighting arrangement, and no communication with the outside world. As they assessed the situation, one miner voiced what everyone was secretly thinking, “We’re screwed.”
The one exception was Jose Henriquez, a veteran miner with more than 30 years of experience. He was the shift’s equipment operator and labor supervisor. Despite having only been at the mine for seven months, Henriquez’ knowledge of mining, his strong Christian faith and positive attitude had gained him the respect of his co-workers.
Several days before the disaster, Henriquez’s grandmother had shared a premonition that something bad was about to happen but that everything would be ok. Late in the afternoon of August 5 as fear was settling in, the miners chose Henriquez to be their spiritual leader and asked him to pray. God was their only hope.
Henriquez led daily prayer meetings at noon and 6 p.m. He prayed for unity among the miners and for God’s will to be done. With a faith strengthened by his grandmother’s words, he prayed for the impossible. Confidence grew that they would be rescued. God’s presence was so apparent that the miners began to refer to Him as Miner No. 34.
With communication lines down, the miners had no idea how hopeless their situation appeared from the surface. Mine officials knew the odds were slim that any miners had survived. It was determined a single block of rock, estimated to weigh 800,000 tons, had broken off and fallen through the layers of the mine causing a chain reaction.
Knowing that any survivors would be at the 2,300-foot level safe zone, rescuers attempted to drill a small hole to the chamber. Hitting a classroom-size cavity from a half-mile away proved to be no easy task. It took eight tries, but on day 17 the drill bit broke through the chamber roof.
When a note with the message, “We are well in the refuge, the 33,” was found attached to the drill bit, shouts of jubilation erupted from 2,000 friends and family members. They had prayed and waited for two and a half weeks under the tent at the makeshift Camp Hope located near the mine’s entrance.
A larger hole was drilled to provide food, water and medical supplies to the trapped miners. When officials brought in a psychologist to provide counseling via phone, they were informed counseling wasn’t necessary – Miner No. 34 was on the job. The next challenge was to drill a 28-inch diameter hole, large enough to pass a capsule through to extract the miners, without creating further instability in the fragile rock column. The world watched and waited as a NASA team designed and built the rescue capsule and mine rescue teams around the world joined in the effort.
On October 13, 2005, seven weeks after the miners were discovered alive and 69 days after the collapse, 33 miners were brought to the surface one-at-a-time. As they emerged from the hole, all were wearing “Thank you, Lord” t-shirts, which had been supplied by a church. A mine tragedy that buried 33 men a half-mile underground for more than two months became a global story of faith, courage, teamwork, and perseverance against overwhelming odds.