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October 13, 2010

As I sit here writing this post, the first of the Chilean miners trapped underground for more than two months is being lifted to the surface in a specially-designed rescue capsule lowered down a 28-inch diameter shaft drilled for the purpose of extracting the men. The preparations for this moment have been painstakingly detailed.

Since receiving news that the miners survived the collapse that entrapped them, people around the world have watched developments and many have tried to imagine what it would be like if they themselves were subject to the same fate. I am not among them.

My attention has been focused on the way in which those responsible for the rescue and those watching their efforts in rapt attention shifted as rescuers adapted to what was clearly an unforeseen circumstance. Like many disasters, this event did not conform to plans made beforehand. Rescuers clearly did not imagine they would have to attend to all of the details that arose when they realized how long it would take to reach those trapped.

When rescuers first made contact with the miners, they faced the dilemma of telling them it would take months of drilling or digging to reach them. As a result, rescuers shifted their attention to making the miners’ stay underground as predictable and bearable as possible. When drilling progressed faster than expected, they had to shift gears again to manage the expectations of families who waited on the surface for the return of their loved ones. All the while they had to deal with hundreds if not thousands of technical details and the expectations of millions of onlookers.

Indeed expectations were a big part of this story. When it was clear the miners had survived the collapse that prevented them from escaping the mine, their families expected officials would spare no expense or effort to rescue and return them safely. The miners themselves undoubtedly endured their fate with hope and good humor in large part because they expected to be rescued after it became clear to those on the surface that they were still alive. No one questioned whether these expectations were reasonable, just as no one seemed to doubt the ultimate outcome we are now witnessing on live television.

This stands in stark contrast to the dashed expectations of Gene Cranick whose house in Obion County, Tennessee caught fire and burned to the ground before his eyes on October 4. When he called 911 to report the fire, dispatchers for the fire department in nearby South Fulton checked to see whether he had paid his $75 annual subscription fee to receive rural rural fire service. Sadly, he had not.

When told firefighters would not be attending his fire, Mr. Cranick offered to pay the fee or whatever costs the fire service would incur in responding to fight his blaze. They demurred.

Public, political and media outrage came fast and furious from every quarter. It seems there is something the left and right of the political spectrum can agree on after all. While some commentators acknowledged that Cranick bore some responsibility for failing to pay his subscription (in fairness, he claims he simply forgot), no one seems to consider it reasonable that firefighters decided not to respond even if they accept the political decision to deny fire cover to rural residents who fail to pay for their maintenance.

Arguments that firefighters had a duty to respond hinge on two assumptions: one moral and one material. The moral argument would have us believe that firefighters cannot or should not reasonably withhold their services from those in peril or need nor should they be instructed or expected to do so by those for whom they work. The material argument holds that the response of firefighters makes a difference in the outcome, which reinforces the moral imperative that indicates they should respond when called upon to do so.

Here’s where expectations come into play. Is the moral argument dependent upon the material one or truly independent of it? Do we believe firefighters have a duty to respond because we believe their actions make a difference? If so, are these expectations absolute or simply reasonable?

Firefighters attend many fires like Mr. Cranick’s with little appreciable effect on the outcome. In other words, they achieve a result not too much different — at least materially — from the effect that would have occurred had they not responded. When the fire has grown bigger than firefighters can control, whether because of delays calling for help, the length of time it takes to reach the fire, or the conditions that allowed the fire to start and grow big enough for someone to detect, firefighters simply busy themselves getting things in place while the fire consumes enough of whatever is burning to decay to a size the attending firefighters can suppress.

All of this activity, like that we have witnessed in the Chilean desert, has the purpose, in part, of reassuring us that everything will be alright in the end even if the damage cannot be stopped immediately much less undone. This is rarely the case though. Fires cause damage, which in many instances simply cannot be repaired. The firefighters’ attendance reassures us though that someone–more importantly someone in officialdom–cares about our fate, and somehow this makes it possible to carry on and get our lives back together or something close enough to it.

No one is known to have survived 69 days trapped more than 2000-ft underground before. Preparations to treat the miners for the myriad problems they may experience as a result of their exposure have been made ready. But we don’t yet know how the story will end. Even if rescuers have made adequate preparations to treat the physical effects of their confinement, the miners will have to make psychological adjustments to accommodate their newfound fame and the problems left on the surface that have not gone away during their absence.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether our expectations have been raised beyond reason by watching the spectacle of the miners’ rescue. Does this raise the bar or does it simply help us appreciate what it means to be human?

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