The message from Chile

Last week’s successful conclusion of the mission in Chile to rescue 33 miners trapped more than 2,000 feet underground has led to an explosion of joy and a sense of solidarity both in Chile and around the world.

The miners’ ordeal was a great hardship for them and their families, but also led to an awe-inspiring display of unity by the Chilean people. In this moving story, the United States and other nations around the world could learn a few lessons from the Copiapo mining accident.

Thousands of people die in mining accidents each year, and rarely do incidents like this get such attention or have such happy endings. China, a country with a record of frequent mining disasters, has expressed its empathy for the miners. President Evo Morales of Bolivia, a country with a history of strained relations with Chile, stood alongside Chilean President Sebastian Pinera at the base of the rescue shaft to welcome the miners, including one Bolivian, as they emerged.

But the United States can learn more from this event than just cooperation and international solidarity. Many of our soldiers are overseas, deeply entrenched in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there’s anything we can take from Pinera’s at-any-cost rescue operation, it’s that no one should be left behind. Applied to the American context, as the wars drag on and some question their continuing viability, it is important that we as a nation continue to remember and support the men and women in uniform who are making a huge sacrifice for us, regardless of our views on their mission. Each and every one of them deserves the same support that the 33 miners have received.

Domestically, the United States has struggled with emergency relief action. Whether it was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill, efforts to curb the effects of the disasters have fallen short of anything close to decisive or innovative. During these dire situations, the United States has found itself caught up in partisan politics, declining help from other countries and failing to do the right thing when it matters most.

The New York Times, in reporting plans to turn the Copiapo mining accident into a Hollywood film, has actually touched on a true reality. The event has played out much like a heartwarming action movie and has left its global audience inspired to overcome political obstacles in the face adversity.

Perhaps one of our next tasks should be finally fleshing out and enforcing restrictions on the mining industry, which has showed considerable disregard for human life over the course of its checkered history.

The United States reported 18 coal mining-related deaths in 2009. While this is considerably better than China’s 2,600 mining-related deaths, the world, with its consumption of coal and metals, owes its miners more respect.

It’s really quite a wonder that in such an established industry, safety procedures have yet to be refined and implemented to perfection. In October alone, following the rescue of the Chilean workers, the world added at least two more tallies to its record of mining accidents: 26 miners were killed and 11 trapped in an accident in China, and two were killed and two are still missing in an Ecuadorean mine.

If the touching story of these Chilean miners is not enough to effect changes in the global mining industry, nothing will be. The Chinese contributed parts of a crane that helped pull the workers out. NASA provided expertise on how to treat the miners while they were trapped and advice on how to extract them. And Pinera was able to get the results he needed from Chileans who may or may not agree with his politics. Congratulations to the miners, their families, Pinera and the people of Chile for their success and heroic efforts.