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James Heffernan

James Heffernan

Posted: October 15, 2010 11:27 AM

OK, folks, I goofed.

Not for the first time in my short and happy life as a HuffPost blogger, I missed a big chunk of the story that I wrote about in my previous post.

When I claimed that the 33 Chilean miners were saved because the government of Chile took over the rescue operation, I failed to mention that it did so with the indispensable help of some great American engineers and their companies.

So with hearty thanks to Daya Gamage of the Asian Tribune, let me run the credits.

Among the first to answer Chile's call for help was the Layne Christensen Company of Mission Woods, Kansas, which sent their very best drillers including Jeff Hart and Matt Staffel, who had been drilling water wells in Afghanistan. Hart and Staffel worked with two Spanish-speaking drilling helpers named Doug Reeves and Jorge Herrera; with Geotec, LC's Latin American affiliate; and with engineers from two Pennsylvania companies -- Schramm, Inc., maker of the T130 drill, and Center Rock Inc., maker of the drill bits.

Every one of these men and their companies and every bit (literally) of their equipment played a vital part in the rescue effort, but it couldn't have succeeded without one more crucial thing: the rescue capsule used to raise each one of the miners through more than 2000 feet of rock. Built to hold a man but also to fit a hole no bigger than a bicycle tire, this ingeniously compact tube was designed by a NASA engineer named Clinton Cragg with the help of two doctors (Michael Duncan and James Polk), a psychologist named Al Holland, and 20 other NASA engineers based in Langley, Virginia.

So what do all these credits mean? That the rescue was a pure triumph of unbridled American capitalism? Yet another proof that the unregulated free market beats the government at getting things done, and that all government has to do is get out of the way?

Not exactly. Private American companies did indeed play a crucial role in the rescue operation. But so did engineers from NASA, which is an agency of the U.S. government. And so did the Chilean government, which paid more than 22 million dollars for the help it got. If the U.S. government suddenly put all American doctors and hospitals on its payroll (which is nothing like what the health care bill mandates), all surgeries would still be performed by doctors, not bureaucrats, and doctors would still be fully entitled to claim credit for saving lives. But this would still be a government takeover of the health care industry.

So let's stop quibbling and consider all the things that made this rescue happen.

It wasn't simply a product of the American free enterprise system OR of any government. Why do we have to play this zero-sum game? No one person or group can claim full credit for this rescue. Instead, it triumphantly exemplifies what can be done through the co-operation and collaboration of governments, government agencies, private companies, and individual engineers all working toward a common end: to rescue the miners. It was also a triumph of international co-operation, and if the Chilean press and broadcast media salute American engineers for this rescue, they may well may help to bury the resentment that we once provoked in Chile by engineering the overthrow of Salvador Allende and supporting the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Quite simply, the rescue operation showed that governments and private companies can work together right across national borders for the benefit of ordinary working men. Companies like Layne Christensen, which aim to make a profit, may well have made one from its work in Chile, but if their bill was paid by the Chilean government, the profit motive cannot fully explain what happened at the San Jose mine. Nor can it explain why Sebastian Pinera -- the right-wing billionaire businessman who now presides over Chile -- has now promised new regulations of the Chilean mining industry. "Never again in our country," he said, "will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San Jose mine, and in many other places in our country."
While many Americans are applauding the new Republican "pledge" to go on cutting taxes and social services, when will all our legislators -- Republicans, Democrats, and Tea Partiers alike -- take Pinera's pledge? When will we stop sacrificing human lives and human welfare on the altar of profit? Last April, a mining explosion in Naoma, West Virginia took the lives of 29 men, which brings to well over 2000 the number of men killed in West Virginia mines since 1884. In the wake of that disaster, Democratic Governor Joe Manchin voiced his sympathy for the victims' families, but to the best of my knowledge, he has taken nothing like Pinera's pledge. On the contrary, his office is now fighting a new EPA rule meant to stop mining companies from stripping off mountaintops and dumping the rubble in the surrounding valleys, burying their streams. To get himself re-elected, that's what Governor Manchin thinks he must condone.

Instead of taking anything like the Pinera pledge, many candidates in this election are pledging to repeal a law that makes health care insurance affordable -- even though an estimated twenty thousand Americans have been dying every year because they couldn't afford it. Sometimes, even those who could afford it have been stiff-armed to death. If you really want to know what a death panel looks like, rent THE CORPORATION (2004), a film by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. In this film, a former executive for a health insurance company -- testifying under oath -- tells a Congressional committee that under orders from her superiors, she denied coverage for treatment of a life-threatening condition that did indeed take a life. This is the system that the right yearns to revive.

Why can't we learn from the Chileans? And why can't we emulate the selfless, collaborative spirit of all those American engineers who worked with the Chileans and gave the very best of their efforts and expertise to save the lives of 33 miners?