Two Australian miners who spent two weeks trapped underground said yesterday that 33 Chileans at the center of a massive rescue effort will have formed a life-long bond during their two-month ordeal.
Brant Webb and Todd Russell, whose survival story was dubbed Australia’s “Great Escape,” said the Chilean drama carried strong echoes of their 2006 experience buried 1km below ground.
The two men were trapped in a tiny space, barely able to move, after a small earthquake at Tasmania’s Beaconsfield mine in 2006, and initially survived by drinking groundwater.
Rescuers managed to pass supplies through a plastic tube before finally clearing a passage wide enough to free the jubilant miners, who greeted the world’s media with arms aloft.
Webb, who hardly knew Russell before the accident but now counts him as a close friend, said the Chilean miners will have formed unbreakable bonds during their experiences of the last 69 days.
“They’ve probably got bonds now that can’t be broken and they probably know more about each other than anyone else does, because they’ve had nothing else to talk about but their lives,” he told Australia’s Nine Network TV. “They can’t talk work, because there’s no work going on. They would have run out of jokes in a couple of days.”
Russell said tension would have been extreme among the miners as they waited their turn to escape the collapsed gold and copper mine through a narrow, specially dug shaft.
“There’s 33 guys trapped underground and over a 20-minute journey they’re going to take one guy at a time,” he said. “As the group gets less and less and less the excitement for the next guy is going to raise to a really big high, knowing that he’s going to be the next one to go.
“And then you’ve got the other remaining guys who’ve got to wait 20 minutes to go and go and go until such time as all 33 have been brought back to the surface,” he said. “It’s going to be really hard for the individuals as they see their mates extracted from there.”
Barry Easter, who oversaw the Australian operation as the region’s mayor, remembered that workers were on a “knife-edge” as the Tasmanian rescue reached its climax.
“It’s a time where everyone gets anxious and quite uptight,” Easter told public broadcaster ABC.
“You’re at the stage where you just don’t want anything to go wrong,” he said. “The people who are doing the actual work in Chile, they must be working on a knife-edge.”
The rescue of Webb and Russell — who celebrated his freedom in a nearby pub — after 14 days was treated as cause for national rejoicing led by then Australian prime minister John Howard.
“Overall it has been a wonderful demonstration of Australian mateship and perseverance,” Howard said. “To those two men I just want to say to them, ‘All of us [Australians] — 20 million of us — are delighted to still have them with us.’”