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May 09, 2006

Trapped Miners Freed

One story has dominated news in Australia for the past two weeks: the collapsed mine shaft in Beaconsfield Tasmania which killed one miner and left two trapped nearly a kilometre underground on ANZAC Day (April 25). These two miners walked free this morning after 14 days trapped in a tiny and confined space. The scenes of jubilation in the town reverberated around the country. Broad smiles, tears flowing, hugging and cheering greeted these two men - Todd Russell and Brant Webb, who walked from the mine entrance and were ushered away by ambulance - doors opened wide for all to see and greet. They were in remarkable health and spirits for such an ordeal.

One barely-noticed aspect of their release was their first act after acknowledging the crowd with raised arms: they did what every miner does after leaving the mine shaft - take their name tag and put it back in place to indicate that they were no longer in the mine. It seems a rather trivial act. After all, there is little doubt that they were free. Hardly a soul near some form of media outlet would not know that they were no longer below surface. So why would they attend to such a mundane act?
I imagine that it was this act which helped sustain them through some of the darkest moments. The symbolism of this act carries a unique power - it declares their freedom, and the end of their captivity. It also places their ordeal within the framework of the ordinary, declaring some sense of power over it. They left the mine not as those rescued from disaster, but as men who had completed a set task. They had even taken time to shower before reaching the surface, as I imagine they would ordinarily do at the end of a shift.

When our third child was hospitalised, his life held on a slender thread, our feelings were encapsulated in two simple images. When it was all over, were we going to celebrate his birth with a funeral or a dedication service? These two symbols declared two different futures, and depicted both our hopes and our fears in the midst of deep inner turmoil in the face of our son's fragility. The struggle would end, we imagined, with one or the other. Life or death. When I watched the two men perform this simple routine, it was this memory which came to mind.

"It was only a symbol," some might say. Yet its power can be easily understated. It is these things which sustain us in our darkest moments: dreaming of a hug and kiss from the wife; playing football on the weekend; a nice cold beer at the pub. These were some of the images to which the miners referred in their struggles underground. It was not so much the act itself, but what it represented that was important: life, freedom, release.

The footage of their first moments was played at least four times on every news service tonight. The miners made their own statements in the symbols they chose, as we all do in our own different ways.

Posted by gary at May 9, 2006 07:55 PM


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