"Miracle" of survival captivates Chile


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SANTIAGO, CHILE - The number 33 has taken on a mystical quality in Chile these days.

Since Sunday, August 22, when contact was finally made with the 33 miners trapped for 17 dreadful days 650 meters down in a copper mine, that number has been showing up in many forms.

Religious explanations point out that Jesus Christ died at 33 years of age. More esoteric explanations point out that the date of event itself (22 + 08 + 2 + 0 + 1 + 0) adds up to 33.

Syncretistic explanations note that the accident occurred in "San José" mine, and José, of course, is the Spanish name for the father of Jesus. The patron saint of mines is San Lorenzo, while the Minister of Mines is also named Laurence Golbern.  The numerical coincidences and human meaning-making abound.

But undoubtedly, the word that has appeared the most since the mine collapse is "miracle". Government leaders, including President Piñeros himself (pictured above), have referred to the discovery of the miners alive after so much time as a bonafide miracle. 

Just two days before rescuers found the miners, the country celebrated San Lorenzo Day, the day of the miner. The celebration included a procession in the San José mine, where hundreds of marchers carried in their hands images of San Lorenzo as well as the Virgin of Candelaria, a favorite religious fetish of Copiapó, the city closest to the mine disaster zone. 

Some 200 relatives of the trapped miners are living in a makeshift camp set up near the zone where rescuers are drilling holes in the earth to extract the miners.  All manner of spiritual services have sprung up around the camp.  Tarot-card readers, numerologists, clairvoyants, priests, and pastors seek to attend to the spiritual needs of the victims' families. 

According to Jesuit priest Paul Makenzie, "Faith continues to be the one thing people cling to in moments of adversity.  If a person has faith in God, or in something, this often restores the very desire to live in someone facing mortal danger." 

"Without faith, it's really not possible to even hope for the miners to safely escape," Makenzie said.

Faith became the national fixation on Sunday.  Television stations broadcast lengthy reports of both Catholic and evangelical devotion, which found expression in their churches through pleas, prayers and even dances.  Chile's churches and temples welcomed far more visitors than usual as the country turned to faith in a last-chance effort to preserve the miners' lives. 

And the miracle the country begged for was granted.  "All 33 of us are safe in the refuge," read the brief note scrawled in red ink, preserved in a plastic bag, retrieved from deep in the mine.  

As the triumph and elation of finding the miners fades, the country braces for the long and demanding task of physically reaching the miners.  A drilling machine will work around the clock for 3-4 months to create a shaft wide enough to pull the miners out.

President Piñeros promised the miners would spend Christmas with their families. "If it is God's will," he said. 

[Story translation by Richard Potts.]