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Rock Stars: How the Story of the 33 Chilean Miners Breaks All the Rules

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When US Air 1549 splash landed on the Hudson River last year, the entire drama took only six minutes from initial impact with a flock of geese to touchdown on the water. All 150 passengers survived thanks to Capt. Sully Sullenberger and his crew. It was plane crash with a happy ending. In the annals of survival stories, what could be better?

Now we know the answer: A mine disaster with a happy ending.

In so many ways, the Chilean story is like US Air 1549 played out in super slow motion. Instead of six minutes, it took 69 days.

The saga of Los 33 is by far the most exceptional and unusual story that I've encountered in my research on who lives (and who dies) in extreme situations. The so-called "Miracle of San Jose" has many of the time-honored features of survival epics going back to the Shackleton Expedition of 1914-1917. But then it breaks all the rules.

To be sure, the first 17 days of the mine disaster followed the prototypical pattern: 33 isolated and desperate men battle for survival with a dwindling food supply and little chance of getting out alive. Above ground, the frantic search is going nowhere. In desperation, the government reaches out to four psychics who survey the scene and announce there is no hope.

"Forget it," they say. "They're all dead."

Underground, the men subsist on 2 bites of tuna, a cracker, and a swig of milk every 48 hours. When they are finally located, they are reportedly down to their last two tins of tuna.

In the following 52 days, after a supply line is set up, the story departs from every tradition. Yes, there is great danger - will the earth shake and the mine collapse again? - but the timeless survival saga quickly morphs into something very different: A new-fangled reality (or perhaps "surreality") TV show with life and death stakes.

A few examples:

  • Instead of a small vigil at the site of the disaster, the whole world fixates on this story. Even Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber follow the rescue. Kardashian tweets: "Wow seriously in tears watching this Chilean miners getting released on CNN. What a tough struggle they made it through!!!" Bieber adds: "Just found out the miners of chile are being rescued!!! happy for the families being brought back together. miracles do happen."
  • Instead of being confined in a cramped, caved-in space or pinned by a boulder - like Aron Ralston who sawed off his arm to escape death - these miners can roam. Indeed, one miner (a fitness addict) reportedly ran six miles a day through the tunnels.
  • Instead of scrawling farewell messages in the dark as oxygen runs out, these miners receive media training from a public relations specialist in order to prepare for the avalanche of attention when they surface.
  • Instead of starvation (or cannibalism), these miners eat empanadas, rice with minced meat or chicken, barbecued steak, sandwiches and yogurt, along with special nutritional supplements.
  • Instead of wasting away, these miners exercise and slim down deliberately to fit into the narrow rescue capsule.
  • Instead of the terror (or tedium) of extreme isolation, these miners watch live soccer games on a projector via fiber optic cable, gamble in a "casino," and communicate regularly by telephone with rescuers, family, friends and a psychologist.
    • Instead of abandonment, these miners receive a steady stream of gifts from above including a signed soccer jersey from one of Spain's World Cup superstars.
  • Instead of turning against each other, these miners reportedly ask an attorney to write an agreement for them to share equally in the proceeds of selling their story.
  • Instead of looking haggard, wild-eyed or deranged, these miners are shampooed, shaved and (shoe) shined.

To be clear, none of this is meant to diminish what the 33 endured in their subterranean Hell. No human beings have ever survived underground for so long. Surely, we have no idea of their horrors and hardships. And we all await every single detail.

Los 33 command our attention - and bring tears to our eyes - for so many reasons. Thirty three men rise from the dead. They're reborn into the world. They're reunited with families, friends (and mistresses). And now, they can breathe free.

It's a suspense thriller, psychological drama, love story and wish-fulfillment fantasy all at once. And now, we get to follow these men on a roller coaster ride to an unknown destination.

Does posttraumatic stress disorder lie ahead? For most, the answer is no. They will be fine. For some, there will be surely be flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, sleeplessness, and anxiety.

Does Hollywood beckon? Definitely.

Will dreams come true? Absolutely.

Consider Edison Pena, a 34-year-old Elvis Presley fanatic who reportedly led other miners in sing-alongs underground.

From the start, Pena's family seems to have grasped the possibilities, sending a note of encouragement to him underground with a photo of Elvis attached.

"Hang in there," they wrote, "because soon you're going to be more famous than Elvis."

They may not be entirely right about his fame, but they weren't wrong about the opportunities.

Presley Enterprises in Tennessee has offered Pena and his family an all-expenses-paid trip to Graceland. Says a spokesman: "When he feels up to it, we'll welcome him . . . with open arms and make him feel like a rock star."