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:
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."
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