MEXICO CITY – More than two months trapped in an underground mine. Ten weeks stranded in the Andes after a violent plane crash.
The survivors of two of Latin America's most notorious disasters – a mining explosion that left 33 workers buried deep in the earth and a plane crash that forced passengers to eat some of their friends and relatives – know very well about isolation and uncertainty .
As the world deals with the new coronavirus and millions of people quarantined at home to prevent its spread, those whose lives have been reversed in the most extraordinary ways are reminiscing about their experiences – and sharing the lessons with BuzzFeed News.
"You need to keep your sense of humor," said Mario Sepúlveda, a miner who spent 69 days trapped in a collapsing gold and copper mine in northern Chile in 2010. "Laughter is the key."
For Roberto Canessa, one of the 16 survivors of a plane crash in the Andes in 1972, the most important thing is to be proactive – not to wait for someone to solve your problems. After Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 took off in the Andes, Canessa spent 72 days in the mountains, watching other survivors die, hearing on the radio that the search for survivors was suspended and climbing an imposing mountain for 10 days to find help.
Today, Canessa, a child cardiologist, is manufacturing ventilators in her home country, Uruguay, to increase the country's supply as she prepares for an attack on COVID-19 cases.
"This is a way to keep anxiety away," said Canessa. "Be your own savior."
The circumstances that Sepúlveda and Canessa faced were more extreme than those in which most people find themselves during the pandemic: they were concerned about the decrease in oxygen, the crushing cold of bones and virtually no food. They didn't know if the roof above them would fall or if an avalanche would destroy them in a matter of seconds. Their trials were so extraordinary that they were made into Hollywood films; the first was played by Antonio Banderas in The 33 and the last one by Josh Hamilton in Live.
However, his experiences contain lessons that people can apply during the strange and uncomfortable weeks in quarantine, away from almost all social interactions – and what life is like after a life-altering event.
Sepúlveda can already see a silver coating for the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is nothing more beautiful in life than falling. Only then can you say clearly: I got up, ”he said.
Sepúlveda knows how to hit rock bottom and come back stronger. On August 5, 2010, he was working in a tunnel almost 800 meters below the earth's surface when the mine above him collapsed.
For 17 days, no one knew whether the men trapped below had survived. Rescuers struggled to drill holes in the San José mine. Finally, a handwritten message came out: "We 33 in the shelter are doing well."
Until then, the miners had established a shift system, alternating between cleaning, watching the unstable mine and taking a nap. Although they were exhausted and overheated, most of them were running back and forth along the 800-meter tunnel that was still open and doing sit-ups to stay strong.
Video captured inside the chamber showed the naked men, except for underwear and helmets, standing or sitting in a small cave-like room. Some slept on stretchers, while others slept directly on the floor. There was complete darkness, except for the mobile flashlight, which occasionally revealed the shocked expressions of the men.
Sepúlveda wondered how this was happening to him. He experienced difficulties throughout his life, having grown up in a large and impoverished family. Why couldn't he take a break? And yet it was this – his close relationship with poverty and his promise to keep his wife and children safe and comfortable – that kept him, day after day, in the mine.
All the men collapsed at some point, said Sepúlveda. Organically, the miners came together and, when someone "lost", their partner pulled them aside and calmed them down. He maintained peace when tensions increased in the tight pit.
"I cried," said Sepúlveda. "It was important to cry, mainly because my parents taught me that boys don't do that when I was a kid."
But the miners also found a way to laugh at their circumstances and even have fun. They teased each other for their increasingly thin physiques. They sang. They played dominoes. When rescuers were able to drill a well in their chamber, they downloaded MP3 players for the arrested men to listen to music.
Finally, 69 days after the collapse of the mine, the miners were removed from the land. The night he was rescued, Sepúlveda ate a generous portion of chickpeas – his favorite food – and then spent hours having sex with his wife, he said. "We really did it," he added, laughing.
As people around the world are forced to take refuge in their homes indefinitely, Sepúlveda suggests taking an approach similar to the one he took during his time underground and then: create a routine that starts by thanking God & # 39; I'm alive. Enjoy your family. Touch. Remember that life is not a competition.
A decade later, Sepúlveda still learns from the mining accident. I feel "bliss, bliss, bliss, bliss," he said, "and a will to live."
Earlier this month, when Canessa realized that Uruguay could not buy enough fans from China and the USA, he decided to make his own, with the help of a colleague.
In recent weeks, the two doctors have developed a prototype using windshield wiper motors, which, he says, people in poor areas can graduate. Each device will cost $ 300, although it has not yet been tested to see if it works.
This is the story of Canessa's life: if no one comes to rescue him, save yourself.
On October 13, 1972, Canessa and her rugby team boarded a chartered flight in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, bound for Chile. Minutes later, the plane crashed into one of the most remote areas of the Andes, killing several of the 45 people on the aircraft.
Most of the survivors suffered serious injuries. There was virtually no food on board. After almost two weeks, a rescue mission was canceled. The situation became more dire every day, with the survivors freezing to death. Eventually, those who remained alive were forced to eat their dead friends.
"I found that you can always be worse off," said Canessa. "And what matters is not how you do things, but why."
Before the accident, Canessa had attended a funeral with her mother. Then she turned to him and said that if she had to bury one of her children, she would die of sadness. "So I can't die," thought Canessa, then 19.
The days passed and the wreckage of the plane arrived home. Canessa remembers talking to God and living according to the "Maybe tomorrow" rule. Maybe tomorrow we will be rescued. Meanwhile, the survivors tried to stay as still as possible to save energy. Some preached. Others made jokes. Everyone found their role in keeping the group in a good mood.
Desperate and certain that no one would find them, Canessa and two of his colleagues began walking west almost two months after the accident, towards Chile. They climbed to the top of a 15,260-foot mountain and then walked some more. Finally, after covering almost 40 kilometers, they found a local muleteer, who helped them to reach a police station.
In all, 29 people died and 16 survived.
For Canessa, everyone has their own Andean challenge; someone's life can change suddenly. The most important thing to remember is that they are transitory and that better times will almost certainly come.
Canessa, who wrote a book about her experience entitled I had to survive, is a celebrity at home and one of the most respected doctors there. He is particularly touched by his rural patients, who live in extreme poverty and look at him with wide eyes when they arrive at the office. Canessa always thinks that one of them could be the son of the muleteer who saved his life 47 years ago. Even now, his voice is filled with emotion when he speaks of the man who helped put an end to his unimaginable odyssey in the largest mountain range in South America.
He laughs at people's complaints during the quarantine. “Everyone is desperate. When I was in the Andes, I was desperate to be home. "
Canessa says that staying physically strong is key, so eat your fruits and vegetables. Sweat at least once a day. And enjoy being bored at home.
And what to do if the coronavirus reaches it? “Have the right attitude. Don't let this catch you off guard. Say: here I am, waiting for you.