COLUMBIA – When the door of the Phoenix capsule opened and Luis Urzúa, the last of the 33 miners stepped on to the ground, Chileans were exuberant and relieved. So were many people in Columbia.
Colleen Thomas couldn’t contain her passion Wednesday as she sat in front of one of the television screens in the Reynolds Journalism Institute and watched the rescue of 19th miner on CNN.
“I’m just really happy that they’re coming out alive,” she said.
It had been 69 days of torment for the miners after the San Jose Mine in Copiapo collapsed on Aug. 5.
Wednesday, they were all finally out. The efforts by the rescue team, which included experts from all over the world, had crystallized.
Plan B had worked, and the Phoenix rescue capsule had made its way through the 2,300 feet that separated the miners from the surface, bringing each one of them back to the top. The journey from the underworld to heaven lasted from 25 minutes to an hour for each of the miners.
The saga was over. Chileans threw themselves on the streets to celebrate the end of an immobile odyssey.
Thomas had been following the miners’ fate since she saw the first videos that they filmed of themselves.
“It was a local story, now it’s a world story,” said Thomas, an employee at the J-Cafe. “It’s amazing, the whole world is watching it.”
The self-described "news junkie" didn’t have time to finish what she was saying, as she was overwhelmed by what, to her, was the best of all possible news. “They got the 19th (miner) out,” she exclaimed. “Look at him, he is hugging his son.”
Thomas doesn’t find it easy to follow news like this in America. “My husband and I were watching the live feed online last night, in Spanish,” she said. “I wish I could understand the Chilean TV, to feel even closer to what’s happening.”
Thomas, a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the Chilean miners’ story, is aware of everything surrounding the rescue, from the conditions in which the miners have been living to the technical details of the capsule that is being used in the process.
“I’m not sure if I have my facts right, but I think this is the first time they’ve rescued people that deep,” she said.
“It was funny that the first thing the second miner who came out asked his wife was, 'How's the dog?'," she said. "I guess some of those miners have a great sense of humor." One wonders why Thomas is not at the other side of the television, commenting on the rescue as the expert that she has clearly become.
The ultimate human interest story
What made this such a huge story? Why are people like Thomas and many others glued to their laptops and television screens? For MU journalism professor Daryl Moen, the recipe is clear.
“It is the ultimate human interest story,” Moen said. “We have people facing complication, all kinds of tension and a resolution, all within a manageable time we can follow. Most television reality shows are not as good.”
Moen’s motivations for following the rescue are a bit different than the average spectator’s. He studies message management, and he sees this case as a great example of that phenomenon.
“I have marveled at the fact that the (Chilean) administration has made this issue a matter of national pride,” Moen said. "Whoever is in office normally gets blamed when some disaster like this happens.
The Chilean administration has managed the message, Moen said. “By putting the expectations on when the rescue would be completed very low and then beating them, they have managed to be seen as heroes, as a competent administration, and they may well be,” he said.
Moen also emphasized the fact that the government is controlling the video of the rescue that is being distributed worldwide to support his message managing thesis.
“That’s part of the reason why, no matter if it’s CNN, FOX or NBC, all stations have the same image – the image that the government wants them to have.”
Moen said that one of the more than 1,000 journalists covering the event Wednesday night said to the audience: You can see it better than we can.
“If, for whatever reason, one of the miners had gone crazy during the rescue, or the capsule had gotten stuck, I have the feeling that we wouldn’t have seen it,” Moen said.
Moen reflected on the repercussions that the managed message might have after the rescue has been completed:
“After this is all over, and if the government decides to work on the resolution of the problems with the mining, they will play with the advantage of being seen as competent,” he said. “They’ve bought some time to work with, to do whatever they decide to do after this is all over.”
Saga brought Chilean students closer to home
MU freshman Carlos Martínez from Chile does not disagree with Moen’s view.
“In some way the government has achieved what they wanted to,” Martínez said.
The reaction after a February earthquake – when another administration was in office – was perceived as very slow, Martínez said, and the current government wants to show that this rescue has been more effective.
Both Martínez and Flavia Santibañez, another MU student from Chile, felt emotionally touched by this drama and closer to home.
“I feel like it’s publicity for the country because it shows that we are united," said Santibañez, a sophomore international business student. “It also made me realize that people do care about Chile, since I had only seen my country on the news here when (former dictator) Pinochet died and after the earthquake a few months ago.”
“Watching the rescue made me feel closer to home for a while,” he said. “When you see things happening there and you are out of the place, those things call your attention, mark you.”
Nevertheless, Martínez, was critical of the media coverage of the event and thinks that the whole drama has been unnecessarily magnified.
“What worries me the most is the guys because they have become celebrities,” Martínez said. “Photographers were running after them as they were going to the hospital.”
“This poor guy (one of the miners) who was cheating on his wife. … His story is going to be a national public issue,” Marínez said. “It’s too much; we’ve gone too far.”
“It’s great, they are going to get them out,” Martínez said. “Everyone is safe and that’s it. It was a good thing for the new government, it was proven that they could get the job done … but that should be the end.”
Martínez hopes that Chile will not get stuck in the miners’ saga.
"We need to focus on progressing as a country rather than magnifying these dramatic images,” Martínez said. “There is still work to do from the earthquake and important things going on.”