The Chilean Miners’ Fénix Capsule: Now on Display at “Against All Odds”

A year after the collapse, the Natural History Museum’s new “Against All Odds” exhibition tells the story and science of the Chilean mine rescue

The Fénix 2
The Fénix 2, used in the Chilean Mine Rescue. The Fénix 3 is now on display at the Natural History Museum Photo courtesy Hugo Infante/Government of Chile

Just over a year ago, the San Jose copper mine in Chile collapsed, trapping 33 miners deep underground. After a harrowing 69 days confined in the mineshaft, all 33 made it out safely in one of the most extraordinary rescues in history. One of the Fénix capsules used in planning the rescue mission, along with a number of other remarkable artifacts, is now on display in the National Museum of Natural History as part of the new exhibition “Against All Odds: Rescue at the Chilean Mine.”

“Against All Odds” tells the story of the mine rescue from many different angles: the geology of copper mining in Chile, the lives of the miners as they waited underground and the tactical challenges in planning such a complex rescue. With new video footage, rock specimens, large scale diagrams and personal belongings of the miners—such as the watch they used to tell day from night while buried some 2,000 feet below the surface—the exhibition recreates the saga while showing museum goers just how grueling the experience was, for both the trapped miners and laboring rescuers.

The capsule, Fénix 3, is the highlight of the show. “This is not the actual Fénix used,” says Sorena Sorenson, geologist and curator of the exhibit. “As with NASA, everything was done in replicate.” This artifact, though, was used in planning the mission and looks just as battered as the original, Fénix 2. The capsule, designed by the Chilean Navy in collaboration with NASA, was based on the Dahlbusch Bomb, a device used to rescue miners from a number of mine collapses in Germany in the 1950s and 60s.

The high-tech Fénix, however, was equipped with a harness, an emergency oxygen supply, and a communication system so the miners could speak to the surface while being hoisted up. Looking at the slender tube, it’s hard to imagine how each of the miners could have fit inside. According to Sorenson, this was actually a concern. After making contact with the surface and receiving food deliveries, they started putting on weight. “Then they went on a diet so they could get into the Fénix, which had a 22 inch diameter,” Sorenson says. “It was a pretty severe calorie control during that period.”

“Against All Odds,” played host to four of the miners alongside Chilean dignitaries at a press preview last week. Seeing their story told in a museum exhibition for the first time was an emotional experience. Reflecting on one of the artifacts on display—a small Bible sent down from the surface—miner José Henríquez said, through a translator, “For the first 17 days, we were praying without a Bible. On the 17th day, we received a Bible that was sent to us. It was that which brought all of us together and guided us through this whole journey.”

The planning for “Against All Odds” began at the start of 2011. “It’s one of the fastest construction and planning processes we’ve ever had at the museum,” Sorenson says, in order to have it ready for the one-year anniversary of the collapse. Designed in collaboration with the Chilean government and the miners themselves, “this is the first entirely bilingual exhibition in science and technology in the Smithsonian,” she says. It will be on display in the Hall of Geology at the museum until the summer of 2012.

For the miners, visiting the exhibition was a potent reminder of both the ordeal they endured underground and the incredible response from the world community. “After seeing the exhibition, we are very proud of what has happened, and the whole story, and how it has brought everyone together,” said Carlos Barrios, through a translator. He added, “I would do it again, and be underground for 70 days again, if it would bring the country of Chile so much faith and reputation.”

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