Paul Holmes on New Zealand
Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: Miners' ordeal a tale for the ages


That Chilean mine rescue has been an incredible story. It stopped the world.

You felt it as you watched. We sat in front of the television at the farm on Wednesday as they got close to lowering their tiny capsule, which looked like an underground rocket, to send the first of the rescuers down 760m.

The capsule did look like a rocket. It even had "Chile" painted on the side, like "USA" on the side of American rockets.

You knew the world was stopping for this, for the nail-biting resolution of a story of terror and impossibility. And it was all the more special knowing that the television broadcast was gripping the entire planet.

It was just a narrow hole and a bucket on a rope, essentially. But would it work? And what a moment when that first man came up after those long minutes between his leaving the mine cavity and his appearance on the surface of the earth.

And in less than 30 hours they had them all out, the heroic 33. It was a miracle. It may have been Jesus come to earth. Perhaps the miner was right. God was the 34th miner, with them half a mile under that rock.

We have to remember that these men went through hell. It was 17 days before anyone knew they were alive. Seventeen days in the dark, half a mile underground.

At least they weren't cramped, unable to move. They had large areas in which to run round to keep fit but you'd think that after 69 days it would stink to high heaven down there.

They had water. In fact, they dug a couple of wells. They even had a little waterfall that worked as a shower. They were, nevertheless, trapped there, half a mile underground.

But it was a brilliant live television event. It had everything. It had terror, it had fear, it had risk, it had innovation, it had the new, the never tried before. It had the president of a country there to welcome each man. It had men being freed from imprisonment 750m underground after more than two months. And, at the mining camp near Copiapo, it had the wives waiting, and the children. It had the human stories.

There was one fellow there who was only working that day of the explosion to fill in for another man who had gone to a funeral. You had a man who had been working there only a couple of months, having lost everything in the south of Chile in the February earthquake. He won't forget 2010 for a long time. And you had a man who had finished his shift and was only in the mine because he was repairing a vehicle.

But what was probably the most amazing thing of all was the breadth of the television coverage. And they got better at it as the hours went by.

Did you notice that? The big international networks simply took the coverage as provided by the Chilean Government. The Chileans owned and positioned the cameras and they had microphones on booms. Presumably they directed the coverage as well.

We'll find out more about this over the coming weeks, I guess, as governments and broadcasters round the world start to realise just how farsighted the Chilean Government was. They knew the intensity of interest in this story, so they obliged.

They set out to show Chile at its finest, this little country. They wanted the world to see what Chile could do. Is that what it was about?

Did they see the chance to make Chile front and centre of the world? If that's what they intended, it worked wildly well. The presence of the huge Chilean flag on the site of the winch showed us that the rescue had become inseparable from Chile's thoughts about itself.

No one involved, including the families of the miners, seemed to mind that this was a massive international television event. But they actually produced it as television drama. I don't think we've seen the likes of it in television history. Cameras everywhere.

They even had a camera down there in the hot mine itself as the rescue began. The entire spectacle may have revolutionised television coverage of national disasters in terms of a nation's access to information and a nation's access to pictures. Whatever. It was a rescue for the ages. It was the hand of God himself.

* * *

My son is in Copiapo. He first went there on the AFS scheme a couple of years ago. We'd never heard of the place - a dusty, grassless mining town in the northern Chilean desert. But he loved it.

He came home and headed back again in January. As I said, who until this week had heard of Copiapo?

Suddenly this week, the eyes of the world were on this same dusty little town of Copiapo. If he was in the square in front of the big screen with the rest of the town, he was probably the only Kiwi in that place at that historic moment. I half expected to see him shouting in the crowd.

I had to smile. One of the reasons he likes it there is because he is well away from the news media. Well, so much for that. This week the media of the world descended upon Copiapo. How wonderful it must be to be in Chile at the moment. What a party must be going on. How proud Chile must be of itself. How joyful the country must be. For that's what it is, a story of human joy. How marvellous we are when we work together, dedicated to a common cause for good.

* * *

Back home, Rochelle Crewe has suddenly emerged into the open air in her own way, for the first time I believe. She wants the police to find out who killed her mum and dad.

Not an unreasonable request, I would have thought. And the police need to go the extra mile here because they behaved disgracefully in the case of the Crewe murders.

Bruce Hutton planted a cartridge case and sent Arthur Thomas to jail for 10 years. The Australian judge was right to describe their actions as "an unspeakable outrage".

Rochelle Crewe is right to demand to know why the police didn't prosecute Hutton and Johnston after the Royal Commission. Why did they not? Who in God's name did the police think they were in those days? As for the Solicitor General, Paul Neazor, his decision not to prosecute Hutton and Johnston was a disgrace. That's what the New Zealand establishment was like in those days. The establishment covered itself nicely.

New Zealand prided itself vainly on being not corrupt. A case like the Crewe murders gives us an idea of the level of corruption that may have existed across the establishment.

Howard Broad should not take this lightly. But I know exactly what he will do. He will put a senior officer on to this. The inquiry will take a decent amount of time. And the senior officer will find, after many pages of interviews and discussions, that too much time has passed for any action to be taken.

And Howard will endorse that view.

- Herald on Sunday

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