An immersion insight: the 2010 Chilean mining disaster and rescue

Disaster

On the 5th of August 2010, a cave collapse trapped thirty-three men in the 2,300-foot-deep San Jose gold and copper mine in Chile. A search and rescue operation was immediately launched, but the odds of making contact with the miners in time were low. Mainly, this was due to the depth of the mine as well as it being unclear whether they had survived the initial accident. The outlook was bleak. However, on the 22nd of August, 17 days after the initial collapse, tapping noises were heard on one of the probes sent down by the rescue team. When it was brought back to the surface a note was found reading: ‘We are fine in the refuge, the 33’. Against the odds, the search phase of the operation had been a success.

Rescue

In the following 52 days the rescue team became a hive of activity: basic provisions were provided to the men through supply holes, three separate escape boreholes were undertaken and amid the rescue operation the wife of one of the trapped men gave birth to a daughter. Ultimately, the second escape borehole known as ‘plan B’ reached the miners on the 13th October, 69 days into their underground ordeal. Amid scenes of jubilation across the Chilean nation, every single one of the 33 was saved. The rescue operation had been a colossal effort involving not only machinery, but the cooperation, resources and determination of companies and individuals from Latin America to South Africa and Canada to Australia. In the process it also captured the imagination of people from around the world, becoming an international media phenomenon.

Lessons in teamwork

This incredible story brings to light how teamwork can help achieve the seemingly impossible. Though no single formula captures the essence of teamwork, at Ignite we believe that by studying the characteristics of high-performing teams we can distil some key lessons. We have studied the story of the Chilean miner’s rescue through the prism of our ‘Four R’s Teamwork Framework’ to understand how the team’s mastery of Relationship, Rhythm, Rally and Reach contributed to their success.

Relationship

During such a high-stakes operation, mutual support under pressure was vital to maintain the team’s morale and momentum. The miners themselves were most in need of support to help deal with intense emotional strain. Communication lines were set up to allow families to support their loved ones with letters and phone calls. To complement the families’ role, experts from NASA and the Chilean navy were brought in to help mitigate the psychological effects of extreme confinement.

The team’s resilience was frequently tested over many months. Regular celebrations of landmark achievements played an important role in supporting morale. Finally, time and again, individuals proved that they were fully committed to the team. Each person became wired to work towards the target outcome of the operation.

Rhythm
Reach

The various parts of the rescue team adopted a robust common approach to work. All the different sub-teams of the operation were committed to a broad and forward-thinking approach to tackling problems. This shared attitude stimulated thinking and ensured that all the different aspects of the mission could be seamlessly integrated into the whole. For instance, the nutritionist’s initiative came to form part of wider plans to support the miners once found.

Another aspect of the common approach was the team members’ patience. This trickled down from above, and eventually became a common mindset. Thus, once the hole had been dug and the rescue cage fitted, the team’s response was to test the device instead of rushing to pull the miners out.

The team operated within a high-performance environment, which allowed everyone to work to the best of their ability. Thanks to the Chilean government, which chose to spare no resources for the rescue, the team was composed of highly skilled individuals supported by international expertise and equipment (including NASA and Australian drilling expertise). Boundaries were erected around the drilling sites to protect the rescuers from outside influences, creating an environment conducive to focus and lucidity.

One of the single most important assets of the rescue team was the clear sense of purpose which drove the operation. From the start, the target outcome was clear: ensure as many trapped miners as possible made it out alive. This alone would have galvanised the rescuers. Yet this fact by itself was not the only source of motivation. With the involvement of President Piñera and the eyes of the Chilean nation and the world upon them, the entire operation became a national struggle. With national pride at stake, symbols such as the many Chilean flags displayed around the camp acted as an additional motivational force. The team was already mobilised, but such symbols served to further elevate the importance and ambition of their mission.

Thanks to an element of luck combined with some very hard work, the rescue team defied experts’ expectations. They had consistently raised the bar during the operation. Determination pushed each and every individual to perform to the best of their ability, throughout. Once above ground and the danger had seemingly passed, it was arranged for the miners to be fully observed and cared for in a Santiago hospital: even once was the rescue was apparently complete, the team never abandoned their professionalism.

Rally

During such a high-stakes operation, mutual support under pressure was vital to maintain the team’s morale and momentum. The miners themselves were most in need of support to help deal with intense emotional strain. Communication lines were set up to allow families to support their loved ones with letters and phone calls. To complement the families’ role, experts from NASA and the Chilean navy were brought in to help mitigate the psychological effects of extreme confinement.

The team’s resilience was frequently tested over many months. Regular celebrations of landmark achievements played an important role in supporting morale. Finally, time and again, individuals proved that they were fully committed to the team. Each person became wired to work towards the target outcome of the operation.