Chile Rescue: A Canadian parallel
The marvellous rescue of the 33 Chilean miners — watched by millions around the world — brings to mind a Canadian underground rescue operation that also was a media sensation in its time.
On Easter Sunday, April 12, 1936, three men went down into the decrepit Moose River Gold Mine in Nova Scotia. Two of the trio were the mine’s owners who were on an inspection trip prior to putting this albatross up for sale.
The tunnels, weakened by the extraction of gold from the rock pillars that supported them, were cluttered with splintered timbers and fallen rock as the men picked their way underground. Water gurgled menacingly. The noise of creaking timbers alerted the men to an imminent collapse.
What made the Moose River mine disaster famous was not so much the 10-day effort to retrieve the men, but the fact that news of the search was broadcast throughout North America via the infant communications medium of radio.
J. Frank Willis, the 28-year-old regional director for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (predecessor to the CBC) hurried to the scene, along with dozens of newspaper men.
Over a 56-hour stretch, from Monday, April 20 to the end of the drama just after midnight on April 23, Willis broadcast live reports for two minutes every half hour. He was on the air for 56 hours straight. Radio stations all over North America picked up his accounts, delivering an audience of 100 million listeners.
In Willis’ final report, he told unbelieving listeners, “I can hear the men working, breaking through the rocks.” Then came these heart-stopping words: ”They have been saved. They are out of the mine. That is all. This is the Canadian Radio Commission.”
A probe had been forced down to the 43-metre level where the three men had been trapped by a cave-in. A garden hose was shoved down, and for five days it carried candles, matches, brandy and hot soup to the trapped men. Sadly, only two were still alive when diggers got to them. One had succumbed to pneumonia.
It’s understandable that the sales of this book never matched that of Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (Avon, 1975) by the British author, Piers Paul Read. This gripping account of the survival of 16 of the 45 people caught in the Andes plane crash of a Uruguayan rugby team also was made into a movie.
You can bet that the race to publish the first book about the ordeal of the San Jose copper miners is already underway. It’s reported that the miners have agreed to collaborate on their own book. They kept a common journal during the 69 days they were locked underground.
The English-language Santiago Times has an interesting on-scene account of the rescue of the Chilean miners.
Many thoughts went through my mind in watching the last hours of the rescue:
- How must the last man out have felt while he waited alone for the final trip of the Fenix capsule?
- What a triumph of ordinary mechanics that rescue was. It looked like a giant Meccano set. Not a computer chip in the whole system!
- How did the men manage to contain the inevitable rivalries and jealousies that would have been present during those long days and nights underground?
- And how many will find their lives in turmoil and distress as they endure the inevitable pressures of fame in the months and years to come?
In the Moose River disaster, the two survivors went on to live normal lives — David Robertson, an investor in the mine who was the chief of staff at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, and David Robertson, who had worked as the timekeeper at Moose River. The second owner, Toronto lawyer Herman Magill, died underground.