SYDNEY – After surviving 14 days trapped underground in a collapsed Australian mine, Todd Russell has a few words of wisdom for the miners trapped in Chile: Keep your sense of humour. Support each other. And belting out a rendition of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” never hurts.
The 33 miners who have been trapped since the Aug. 6 mine collapse in Chile may be stuck there for up to four months as rescuers struggle to reach them. For those 33 people, Russell says, surviving that mine will be all about the mind.
“Mentally, it’s going to be very hard,” says Russell, 38. “Fourteen days for us felt like an eternity. Four months is going to feel like light years.”
In 2006, Russell and fellow miner Brant Webb found themselves buried a half-mile (kilometre) underground, after an earthquake caused a cave-in at a gold mine in the island state of Tasmania. The pair were trapped in the 4-foot (1.2-meter)-tall safety cage in which they’d been working.
Fourteen men made it out safely, including Webb and Russell.
The only food they had was one cereal bar, which they left untouched until they’d been trapped nearly three days. Even then, they took only small nibbles of it, savoring each bite. They used their hats to collect water that seeped into the cage through the rocks.
There was no room to stand, and they spent most of the 14 days lying down. Russell’s left leg went numb. The air was stiflingly hot, but the water dripping down on them combined with air drafts led to hypothermia.
But it was the mental anguish more than the physical that presented the biggest challenge. To overcome it, Russell says, they swapped jokes, told tall tales and reassured each other that they would live.
“We used each other as sounding boards” he says. “Having someone there with you is probably the best thing.”
Five days after becoming trapped, they were singing “The Gambler” — the only song they both knew — when they heard a rescuer’s voice from above.
But they would spend nine more days waiting for the rescuers to drill a tunnel deep enough to get them out. The uncertainty of when they would be freed was agony, Russell says — an agony the Chile miners are likely to experience, too.
“After six days, they’re telling us, ‘We should have you guys out in 48 hours, 48 hours, 48 hours.’ Every time that 48 hours would elapse, they’d say another 48 hours,” he says. “It was so mentally draining on us.”
Rescuers sent food and water to them through a narrow pipe they forced down through cracks in the rock. Letters from family members followed — bringing both joy and pain.
“Probably one of the hardest things is actually seeing letters being written by the families, because you couldn’t physically hold them or talk to them,” he said.
But he found great comfort in a family photo rescuers sent down at his request. He stuck it to the rock above his head and kept it there until he was freed.
“It made me stronger, with more of a will to survive,” he said. “Thinking, ‘I want to go home to these loved ones of mine.'”
After finally being pulled to safety, Russell says he experienced the highlight of his life upon seeing his family. But he was unprepared for the new challenges that lay ahead.
There was the media onslaught, the insomnia and the nightmares that lasted for more than a year. “It didn’t matter what you dreamed about, you always ended up trapped,” he says.
The stress bled over into his family life, and his wife threatened to leave. He couldn’t bear to be around his children. He finally sought the help of a counsellor and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He is doing much better now, he says, and works as a sales manager for a Tasmanian explosives company. He visited the mine one time after his ordeal, but never returned to work as a miner.
And he still gets together with Webb on occasion to catch up over a beer. The miners in Chile will probably stay close long after they return to the surface, too, Russell says.
“They’ll certainly have a bond,” he says. “They’re together for the rest of their lives.”