Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Trapped in Chile

Those curious about the history of mine and other collapse rescues might check out my article for Invention&Technology on heavy rescue. Premise of that piece was that three needs moved the field of heavy rescue forward the most: pulling people from railroad wrecks, mine rescues, and extracting people from building collapses during the Blitz of London.

First reports suggested that everybody had been crammed in an oversized broom closet; there is such a refuge but they don't use it much and have been roaming around a mile of tunnels. I was relieved to hear about the elbow room since deep mines can flood rapidly once the pumps stop. So that's better than 33 men stuck in a hot chamber with about 12 square feet per person.

Reporters have been pondering how well the men will hold up, now that they know that rescue could take months (I'm predicting the job will go twice as fast as predicted but that's still a long time). I looked back through some historical accounts.

A collapse in Saxony, Germany, in 1963 prompted a detailed study on the effects of entrapment and delayed rescue. When 11 men waited two weeks for rescue in total darkness they hallucinated after eight days; several claimed they went for four to seven days without drinking anything because they feared the water was poisoned; and the men experienced extreme hunger for a couple of days and then that feeling went away. Doctors surmised the men could have gone for more than two weeks with only water to drink and would have suffered no permanent injury. Of course, the doctors weren't down there ...

As miners awaited rescue from a 1926 iron mine collapse in Michigan, one tried to blow himself up with dynamite but was stopped in time. Another claimed he was so desperate for a smoke he ate three corncob pipes.

Biggest lesson from historical accounts back to 1900: every mine should have at least two exits.

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