When leadership matters. The case of the Chilean miners

August 27, 2010

Sometimes leadership matters in an obvious life or death way.  The Chilean miners are a case in point. Anyone brought up in a mining community will know why

Tudor Rickards

The stark facts of a human crisis have been told around the world.  One journalist confronted the possibility that his own profession might look for the greatest possible human interest angle in the story, as in the classic Billy Wilder movie.

The story hardly needs embellishing. A mining accident occurs half a mile underground.  At first, the local community fears the worse while hoping for the best. Families of miners have memories of the outcomes of earlier disasters.  In South Wales when I was growing up, the mine’s alarm bell was as significant as the tolling of a church bell or a trumpet-call in other communities. Our poets and writers helped create and recreate our images of fear and heroism.  When you start from that understanding you also begin to understand how miners can survive psychologically  after days or weeks on entombment. You can also understand a little why miners have such a strong social bond, and a bloody-minded determination to keep fighting to the bitter end in an industrial dispute.

All in a day’s work

A ‘normal’ day’s work occurs under conditions hard to imagine with experiencing some analogous claustrophobia-inducing conditions.  But that normality has already helped a group of 33 men come to terms with what has happened.  Stark realism and conditioned responses come together, and maybe keep in denial being overwhelmed with dread.  Maybe, just maybe, a group of experienced potholers would be the closest approximation of skills and attitudes of survival value.   Another might be sub-mariners.  A Radio 5 news item intelligently seized on that possibility. Yes, there are similarities, their interviewee said, but at least we had volunteered to be together in a confined space for weeks on end.  But so have miners, if we set aside the level of free choice in a mining community to be either a front-line miner of part of the support staff.

Situation report

The rescue plan is fraught with difficulties, but a clear overview was provided by the BBC:

The plan to rescue the 33 men trapped 700m (2,300ft) underground in the San Jose copper mine in Chile is a complex undertaking that could take engineers until the end of the year to achieve.

In a similar operation in 2002, American rescuers spent two days drilling a hole just wide enough to fit a man to rescue nine miners trapped underground. The Americans had to drill down just 74m. By comparison, the plan to rescue the 33 men in Chile nearly three quarters of a kilometre underground is a much greater challenge. But, says John Urosek, who took part in the 2002 Quecreek mine rescue in Pennsylvania, it is not “mission impossible.”

“I would put this at the tough end of things. It’s not mission impossible but it’s a difficult mission,” says Mr Urosek who is now chief of mine emergency operations for the US Mine Safety and Health Administration. The key to the operation is the use of a specialist drilling machine, designed to bore deep narrow holes through any rock to a depth of just over a kilometre.

There are numerous uncertainties and requirements for precision-engineering. The technical side has echoes of the on-going BP attempts to ‘drill and fill’ the well in the Gulf of Mexico. Leadership above and below ground will be vital.  Above ground all the skills of project management will need to be deployed.  There are additional ‘interface skills’ already evidenced in the supplies provisioned through the tiny bore-hole, and communication systems being set up.  Underground, the leadership influences will be revealed over time.  It is likely to have a strongly emergent and distributed aspect to it.