SPRINGHILL – As the rescue of the 33 trapped Chilean miners continued to play out on television yesterday, Ken Melanson slapped his knee with a hoot, gave a big thumbs-up and yelped “right on” as he watched yet another successful effort.
Mid-afternoon Wednesday, Melanson was operating off very little sleep and a spiritual high one can only get when the odds are being beaten.
The 1956 Springhill mine-disaster survivor was glued to the television set and cheering like a football fan during a Super Bowl as the 19th miner was about to poke his head out of the ground for the first time in 69 days.
Late Tuesday, Chilean rescue workers prepared to bring up the trapped miners and that’s when the phone started ringing at Melanson’s Valley Road home.
“The calls were coming in before I knew the rescue efforts were underway,” Melanson said. “I knew it was going to be soon but not that soon.”
As a teenager, Melanson was trapped underground for four-days after an explosion ripped through the now-closed No. 4 coal mine in Springhill.
Like today’s Chilean miners, little hope was given for Melanson and the other 112 miners trapped 3,000 feet underground, but through the rescue efforts of draegermen and barefaced miners, 88 were rescued while a total of 39 were mourned.
Melanson’s ordeal was not as long as the Chileans, but he said he has a pretty good idea what it was like for them.
“They had spent 17 days with no contact and we had spent three. A couple fellas wrote their wills and others wrote letters to loved ones. I didn’t, but I was too scared to,” he said as the television broadcasted the South American rescue. “It must have been something for them to see that drill come through.”
A special shuttle was used to bring the Chilean miners to the surface one-by-one and “for the life-of” him Melanson said he can’t remember what it was like to wait for his turn to walk escorted out the No. 4.
They left in groups of 12, he said, with the injured going first while his group was last to leave. What he does remember, though, is that first contact with the outside world after almost giving up hope.
“After I saw those draegermen break through, oh – the first one to come to us was Dr. Arnold Burden,” Melanson said. “He was the first one to us and he started taking our pulses, getting us to calm down. If there’s a hero in this town it’s him.”
The determination and spirit of the Chilean rescue teams, Melanson said, make them all heroes and adds he has no plans on moving too far away from the television set until the last man is out.
“When I see that last man come out of that cage I want to be able to say ‘Good job, guys. Chins up.’”
The Capiapo mining accident started Aug. 5, 2010, when the San Jose copper and gold mine experienced a collapse, trapping the 33 miners. A second collapse on Aug. 7, shut down the initial rescue efforts. Bore holes were dug while the fate of the miners was still unknown and on Aug. 22, a probe reached where rescuers believed the miners could be. As the drill returned to the surface rescuers found a note attached that read "Estamos bien en el refugio los 33" – The 33 of us in the shelter are well.
The first of those 33 miners saw the light of day for the first time since the mining accident yesterday.