Chile's Successful Rescue Sets Example for Other Countries

What can the U.S. learn from Chile's rescue response?

Oct. 13, 2010 — -- Americans continue to marvel at the rescue of trapped Chilean miners entombed in the collapsed San Jose mine for over 10 weeks.

The 33 men were trapped longer than any other miners in history and were being rescued from a depth never tried before. Yet, Chilean officials appeared to prepare and execute the rescue smoothly and methodically.

"This is very much unprecedented in that never have so many people been trapped so long, so far down," said JD Polk, Chief of Space Medicine at NASA.

While the spectacle that's transfixed the world may have begun as a mining accident, there was nothing accidental about the outcome.

Within hours of the Aug. 5 mine collapse, Chile's government took over the search. The world's biggest copper producer marshaled every resource it had to find the men.

Chile's Response: Transparent and Meticulous

It took 17 days, but rescuers persisted. Against perhaps impossible odds, they found the men.

Family members and officials marveled at the note the men sent up -- "We are well in the shelter."

From the moment the men were found, the Chilean government had a plan.

"So we have planned a whole support system for food, for psychological help, etc.," Chile's Minister of Mines, Laurence Golborne, told ABC News in the early days of the rescue. "We are going to keep them alive and in good shape."

It was a promise that, so far, rescuers have kept. With no playbook and no precedent, Chilean engineers created a system to sustain the men through a six-inch hole, dropping down food, medicine and even communications equipment so that the men could talk to their family members.

They brought in drills used for airshafts, water wells and oil. At the same time, Chilean naval engineers were designing the steel capsule that the men are using to ascend to freedom. The Chilean Health Ministry devised a protocol to care for the men before, during and after the rescue.

While this was a Chilean effort, the government did not hesitate to call on international expertise -- a Canadian oil drill, drill operators from NASA, a cable from Germany -- so the rescue capsule wouldn't spin. Even more help came from Argentina, Spain and South Africa.

Chile's Response vs. U.S. Response

The miracle that's mesmerized so many makes some American experts question the United States' response to its own disasters. Chile's use of international help during the crisis is a far cry from the U.S. officials' handling of international help offers during Hurricane Katrina and the recent BP oil spill.

"Chile has done this much better, frankly, than we've done in the United States recently by effectively marshaling and mobilizing all resources, whether they be foreign governments or private sector organizations from all over the world," said Daniel Kaniewski, deputy director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute.

Kaniewski has studied U.S. officials' response to Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf oil spill and the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. He said responses to recent catastrophes on U.S. soil have been fraught with controversy and appear to many as anything but smooth and meticulous.

In Chile, no time was wasted pointing fingers. The government simply took charge. In the United States, that's difficult to do.

Former FEMA director Mike Brown said that bureaucracy in the United States sometimes hurts the relief and rescue efforts during a catastrophe.

"The unions are concerned because they want to be able to show whether there were problems in mine safety," Brown said. "The mine owners are concerned because they want to show they were doing everything. The regulators, the oversight committees want to show that they were doing everything. So everybody is jockeying for position, at this point."

Brown said that the competing interests forces agencies and organizations into a defensive position. Instead of being on the defensive, Brown said that U.S. officials need to focus on their immediate mission.