While the world watches…and waits

The world – and the media – is transfixed today by the ongoing rescue of the 33 miners who have been trapped underground for two months in a collapsed mine in northern Chile. As they emerge blinking behind sunglasses, into the desert daylight, we heave another sigh of relief. The unfolding story of their survival and planned rescue has brought hope to a world weary of bad news, and its successful executionn throughout last night and today is a testament to the power of planning, engineering, organisation, politics, money, hope, character, luck, faith…in fact, whatever people want to hang on this moment, they are doing so.

Throughout the morning, as news of the emerging miners breaks, I’ve had an earworm playing at the back of my head, which I’ve been trying not to give focus to, but here we go:

The song is the Ballad of Springhill, originally by Peggy Seeger (the version I know is by Martin Carthy) which was written about a mining disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia, in October 1958. An underground seismic “bump” caused the coal faces deep underground to collapse, killing many men instantly and trapping others. Over the days which followed, survivors slowly made their way to the surface and contact was made with a group:

“After five and a half days (placing it around the morning of Wednesday, October 29, 1958) contact was established with a group of 12 survivors on the other side of a 160 foot rockfall. A rescue tunnel was dug and broke through to the trapped miners at 2:25am AST on Thursday, October 30, 1958…. Of the 174 miners in No. 2 colliery at the time of the bump, 74 were killed and 100 trapped but eventually rescued.” [source]

Thankfully, it looks like all the miners in the Chilean situation will be rescued safely throughout the course of the next couple of days.

Tangent: I think going by their onscreen graphic Sky News will refer to this as “Miners rescued: 33/33 – Achievement Unlocked!” Though people seem to find the count variously tacky and/or helpful, I think there are many who echo the sentiment of this twitter user:

“Anyone else reminded of lemmings whilst watching sky news’s coverage of the miner rescue? They have a counter, so far 0/33 rescued”

Anyone doubting this similarity is urged to study any Lemmings screenshot, and compare that with Sky’s on-screen graphic.

The 1958 “Springhill bump” was notable for another reason, too: it was the first major international story in Canada to be covered by live television broadcasts — a new service being developed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) [more info]. Then, as now, the media circus camped at the minehead, watching and waiting.

While you watch the rolling news today, and follow the liveblogs and twitter updates, take a moment to watch this archive footage from CBC with interviews and coverage from the pithead. The events change, but the live media coverage is eerily similar, together with questions from the studio to our man at the pithead: “What’s going on right now? What can you see?”

Some things change, some stay the same. Meanwhile, in a Chilean desert, the miners rise one by one, blinking from what could have easily been a tomb. The world welcomes them back.


More on the Springhill disaster

This is a wonderful audio clip featuring the words of Maurice Ruddick, a black* miner at trapped Springhill who kept his companions’ spirits up by singing happy birthday and hymns while they waited for rescue in the dark.

* His colour is relevant because after they were rescued, the governor of Georgia in the southern US offered the surviving miners a free holiday…only Ruddick couldn’t stay with the others on account of his colour. His companions wanted to turn it down. Moral: in a coalmine, trapped in the dark, skin colour doesn’t matter; everyone is black. [More on this story from an Ottawa Citizen archive article, published in 2000 but which survives on a web forum]

Listen to the Ballad of Springhill, sung by Martin Carthy:

U2 version, for those that way inclined:

Twelve men lay two miles from the pitshaft
Listen for the drillin’ of a rescue team
Six hundred feet of coal and slag
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam

Eight days passed and some were rescued
Leaving the dead to lie alone
All their lives they dug their graves
Two miles of earth for a markin’ stone

Sobering to think how today’s events might have turned out instead. Glad they didn’t.

October, 1958:

[on being asked by reporter Lloyd McGinnis “doesn’t this remind you of 1956, when all hope was gone?”] “I’ll stop you there, Lloyd: all hope is never gone” – Bud Tabor, CBC technician who lost his father at Springhill in 1938 and with uncles injured in Springhill in 1956, then trapped underground at Springhill in 1958, speaking at the pit head

October, 2010

“We always knew that we would be rescued, we never lost faith,” – Mario Sepúlveda, Miner at San José mine

3 thoughts on “While the world watches…and waits

  1. You and I both – I’ve been thinking of that song on and off all day. Carthy sings like he’s made of clay and earth and rock himself, and indeed, that line, “All their lives they dug their graves”. An astonishing, blistering insight in to the terrible horror of the miners’deaths (and that the mine became a graveyard, to those left behind).

    It is amazing, and touching and fucking fantastic that those guys have survived.

    Every year in China, 2,500 men die in mines (it used to be 6000, up until they introduced more health and safety a couple of years ago).

  2. Peggy Seeger’s touring right now, having just moved back to the UK: she’s playing in Selby, Sheffield… and the historic mining community of Kings Place on the 22nd.

    The World Service just ran a good piece looking at the tens of thousands who die in mines each year, mostly in accidents that aren’t big enough even to make the local headlines. (It pointed out that mine safety and union membership go hand in hand.)

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