What trapped miners can teach fire service leaders

Surviving 2,000 feet below the surface for more than two months on limited supplies offers key insights into effective leadership

On Aug. 5, 2010 a catastrophic mine collapse in northern Chile left 33 men trapped 2,300 feet underground. Initially, mine officials assumed that the men had either been killed in the collapse or would die soon after due to injuries or starvation, as there was no way to contact the men and rescue seemed impossible.

The only access into the mine was an underground road that after the collapse was blocked by an enormous rock twice the mass of the Empire State Building.

But the miners did survive. And they were ultimately rescued 69 days later, an epic story told by Hector Tobar in his book "Deep, Down, Dark" and later in a feature film "The 33."

I was among many millions around the world who were captivated by this story as it played out in 2010. I still remember where I was when I saw the first miner emerge from the rescue capsule. It was the ultimate feel-good story that autumn.

Of course, the reality of more than two months underground, nearly three weeks of it in apparently hopeless conditions, was much more complex. What the miners endured and overcame in that time provides leadership lessons for all of us.

Group dynamics
The miners were a diverse group, including different ages, nationalities, educational and work backgrounds, and family and religious affiliation. One man was almost ready to retire. It was another man's first day on the job.

Because of overtime and extra shifts, the group was larger than the usual work crew, and all the miners did not know one another well or even at all. The group included two designated leaders, a shift supervisor and a foreman.

The miners sustained some injuries during the collapse, although none of them were life-threatening. Some of the miners had significant health issues, including diabetes, alcoholism and silicosis.

They had access to an underground refuge that had food supplies intended to sustain 25 men for two days. Their water supply was barrels of water that had been used to clean machine parts.

Temperatures averaged around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the air was still and fetid. And it was dark, their space lit only by dimming headlamps in the gloom.

How did they survive? How did they manage not only the intense physical hardships of their ordeal, but the psychological ones too?

Natural leaders
The answer is simple: Leadership. But leadership comes in many forms.

The shift supervisor was a realist — once he was aware of the obstacles to rescue he accepted that they might die together deep in the mine.

But several workers including Mario Sepulveda, who had no official rank within the group, decided to fight back. He led a party to try to find a way to self-rescue.

He took command when other miners raided the meager food supplies the first day. He pushed others who seemed ready to give up.

Sepulveda was the face of leadership in the mine disaster, but he was not the only one responsible for the survival of the group. And that is perhaps the most important lesson from this disaster.

A strong, positive leader is important. This kind of leadership is not necessarily about rank. But all members of the group contributed to the successful outcome of this event.

One man prayed over another desperate colleague, and became the de facto pastor for the group, leading prayers every day. Another man, resourceful with equipment, jury-rigged a way to charge batteries from vehicle generators, thus providing more light and hope for the group during its darkest times.

Group before individual
Sometimes the smallest actions can be the most meaningful. As food was rationed into less than starvation portions, some men suffered more than others. In particular, the smallest man in the group became skeletal and temporarily blinded by starvation.  

But when he stepped up to suggest they all forgo any food one day to provide some sustenance for the next, the other men were inspired. If the skinniest among them could put the group's need ahead of his own, they could do the same.

The men began offering apologies to others in the group on a daily basis. They asked forgiveness from the group for actions such as speaking harshly or for not helping with the water. These were small transgressions, but they can lead to big problems in groups during crisis.

Finally, they all agreed that if they should survive, they would tell their story only as a group, sharing any financial gains equally. And despite enormous pressures on them once they were rescued, they kept this promise.

There are many lessons here for firefighters. Groups function best when leadership can emerge from sources beyond just rank or position. Small things matter when groups are under stress.

Actions speak louder than words when putting the needs of the group ahead of the individual. Individuals will fail, they will crumble under pressure and they will behave badly but in the end, the strength of the group is what matters.

And a promise means nothing unless it is kept.

Gene Krantz, NASA mission control director for Apollo 13, once said, "The individual can fail but the team cannot. Each person on the team is a potential hero working among heroes." This was certainly true for the 33 men who survived the Chilean mine collapse in 2010. And it should be true for every firefighter on every crew, every day.

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