Chilean miner Jose Henriquez tells GEORGE LUKE of the day the mine collapsed and his certainty that God would bring him and his colleagues out alive
When the 33 miners were rescued last summer after being trapped underground for two months, millions celebrated all over the world. For many, the rescue was an oasis of hope – a good news story smack, bang in the middle of a year full of disasters.
It was also one of those rare occasions when God was given some credit for things turning out well, rather than being blamed for another tragedy. And that is partly due to the testimony of one of the rescued miners – Jose Henriquez, the man who found himself given the unofficial job title of ‘pastor’ while he and his mates were stuck underground.
The son of a miner (who, ironically, had warned him not to become one himself because it was too dangerous), Jose started working in the mines 33 years ago.
The memories of the miners' first day trapped underground are still fresh in his mind.
“That first day was catastrophic,” says Jose bluntly. “It was terrible; very difficult for every one of us. First we heard an explosion, and then rocks started falling. There was a cloud of dust that lasted for about three or four hours.
“We had no light; we had no water; we had nothing in those first few hours. We only had enough food for three days; there was a lot against us. But we organised ourselves and we began to pray.
“The first conversations we had amongst ourselves were about how to handle the problem. We were a team; we had electricians, mechanics ... all of us were trained in one skill or another.
“We had to organise ourselves to face this crisis. How were we going to live? Where were we going to sleep? Where were we going to get food or water from? How were we going to ration the little food we had? Those were the first conversations we had. And in those conversations, we realised very quickly that we had to find an answer in God.”
Above ground, God was also very much on people's minds as news of the accident unfolded.
“We were all galvanised with the shock of it,” says Alf Cooper, Evangelical chaplain to the President of Chile, and Jose's translator on this trip. “We wondered whether these 33 men were alive or not.
“I received a telephone call from the President, literally ordering me to do a prayer meeting. And so the next day in the Presidential chapel, the Catholic chaplain and I prepared a prayer meeting.
“We were surprised to find the President, his wife and all the staff and the Cabinet had come along. We just prayed without any idea.
“It was a desperate moment, and it was at the time when the President was making the risky decision of putting everything into saving them. And even though experts from all over the world came in to help with the rescue operation, it seemed unlikely that the miners would survive.”
Jose says he always had a feeling that he and his workmates would make it out alive, despite how bleak things seemed to be in those first few days.
“God can reveal these things to his children,” he says. “God is a real and living God, and that's why he can do this kind of thing. He can let us know in our hearts that we will be released from whatever danger we find ourselves in. He can do these things.”
As expected, the miners' amazing rescue has turned them all into unlikely celebrities. While Jose was travelling Britain speaking in churches, Luis Urzua, the leader of the team and the last miner to be rescued – was also here as a guest presenter on the National TV Awards.
But Jose has one booking in his diary that trumps Luis' star turn completely. Just before he left Chile for the UK, Jose received a phone call from the White House, asking if he would be a guest at a prayer breakfast with President Obama.
“It’s a long way to go just for breakfast!” he says, with a hearty laugh. “But I'm happy to go and give my testimony there about what it meant to us to be rescued.
“Wherever I go, I just wish to give testimony to Jesus. I'm not really interested in travelling to visit places like Disney World; I've got a far more important mission with these travels of mine – and that is to bring glory to Jesus.”
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