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Agonizing wait for miners -- and the world

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
Relatives watch video of miners trapped in a gold and silver mine in Chile.
Relatives watch video of miners trapped in a gold and silver mine in Chile.
  • 33 miners are trapped almost half a mile underground in Chile
  • Bob Greene says their wait is made vivid by videos of the miners
  • He says: "Over the centuries there have been miners who have waited to be rescued."
  • No one saw the faces of those who in the past have been locked in the earth, Greene says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- You wouldn't think the stakes could get any higher.

Any time miners are trapped beneath the earth, the world holds its breath. What miners do every day even when things are going fine is something most people would never consider attempting: the impossibly tight spaces, the dark and claustrophobic passageways, the knowledge that at any moment it could all collapse in on them.

But when they are trapped, entombed alive, listening for a sound that tells them someone is trying to rescue them, it chills people around the globe. The clock ticks. Strangers pray. Silence becomes paradoxically loud.

What is different this time -- what distinguishes the plight of the 33 miners trapped almost half a mile underground in Chile -- is that the world is seeing them and hearing them. The video images that have been sent to the surface have rendered the miners real in a way not usually experienced during dramas like this.

Video: Remembering the mine collapse
Video: 30 days and counting
Video: Three plans for miners' rescue

Over the centuries there have been miners who have waited to be rescued. But no one saw the faces of those men; no one heard their voices. To all but their families and friends, they were abstractions.

Not this time. "Get us out of here soon," one of the miners said into the video camera, and his words traveled to every corner of the planet at the speed of light. "I have changed my clothes," said the voice of a miner on a second tape. "I've had a shave. And I have some new boots."

What is so powerful is not the words themselves; what is powerful is the way that the sound of the voices, even if you don't speak the same language, makes the urgency of their plight universal. The way that the look in their eyes -- sometimes somber, sometimes buoyant -- makes the thought that it may take four months to reach them all that much more agonizing.

If the rescue mission should fail, that video record of the men in the mine will remain. Those faces and those voices, waiting for help, will be an eternal reminder of the faith of the 33 men. They will endure and echo.

The world has always been ready to care about someone locked inside the earth. The empathetic fear is primal and timeless. The technology of telling us about the anguish has changed, but the essence of why we can't turn away has not.

On each new occasion when public attention focuses on a person or persons trapped and wanting to be rescued, I think of Floyd Collins and Skeets Miller. Collins was a 37-year-old amateur cave explorer in Kentucky in 1925. On a January day, he went by himself deep into a place known as Sand Cave. In a narrow shaft, he found himself unable to move. A rock pinned his left leg.

Skeets Miller, 21, was a reporter for the Courier-Journal of Louisville. He was a physically small man; because of his size, he was able to crawl all the way to where Collins was immobilized.

For 17 days, the nation and then the world read the stories that Miller wrote each time he crawled back into sunlight.

"Floyd Collins is suffering torture almost beyond description," Miller wrote, "but he is still hopeful he will be taken out alive, he told me at 6:20 o'clock last night on my last visit to him. . . The dirty water splashed in my face and numbed my body, but I couldn't stop. . .I saw the purple of his lips, the pallor on the face, and realized that something must be done before long if this man is to live."

Collins didn't live; millions of people he had never met were pulling for him, but in the end all of the rescue efforts weren't enough. In the midst of the ordeal, Skeets Miller wrote:

"Death holds no terror for Floyd Collins, he told me when I fed him tonight, more than 115 hours after he was trapped in Sand Cave. . .'I believe I would go to heaven,' Collins told me as I placed a bottle of milk to his lips. . . ."

The connective thread that reaches from Sand Cave in Kentucky in 1925 to the San Jose Mine in Chile in 2010 is the plaintive illusion, born of compassion, that distance and isolation can somehow be wished away. Our world does seem smaller now, and our common reference points are many; it was reported that one of the miners in Chile, speaking about another of the 33 who has been serving as a de facto medical officer for his colleagues, said: "This is Dr. House."

Confined half a mile under the earth in Chile, the miner was referring to a character in an American television series, and it's a good bet that Hugh Laurie, the actor who plays Dr. Gregory House in the series, may, like the rest of us, have seen at least some of the video footage of the miners. We all are tethered in ways that would have been unimaginable in past generations. "You will be bigger than Elvis," it was reported that another miner's family sent word to him, promising him what will be awaiting when he is pulled from the mine.

We see their faces; we hear their voices. Four months, the experts are saying; perhaps it will be four months before the 33 can be reached and rescued. That would make it around Christmastime. The world shudders. The 33 wait.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.