In theaters this weekend, The 33, starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche, recounts the extraordinary story of the 2010 Chilean mining disaster that buried 33 miners 2300 feet underground for 69 days before their unprecedented rescue. The world was riveted by the story; one of the miners, Mario Sepúlveda — dubbed “Super Mario” by the media, and played in the film by Banderas — acted as spokesman for the group in daily video logs, and his face became familiar all over the globe.
Fewer would recognize the face or the name of the man whose plan — and drilling equipment — made the rescue possible: Deacon Greg Hall, owner of Houston-based Drillers Supply International. (Some readers might recognize the name of Hall’s other company, the American Manufacturing Company in Minnesota: the first company to win a temporary injunction against the Obamacare contraception and abortion mandates, and, with Hobby Lobby, one of the first to win a permanent injunction.)
Deacon Hall’s name isn’t even in the film; his character is conflated with one of his employees, a driller named Jeff Hart played in the film by James Brolin.
That’s okay with Hall. He doesn’t want credit; as far as he’s concerned, the rescue was God’s work, not his. Hall is a permanent deacon who at the time of the rescue was a diaconal candidate and acolyte in the final year of his formation, months away from ordination. Since that’s where I happen to be right now in my own formation for diaconal ordination next June, I knew I wanted to talk to him.
Any words of advice to a deacon-to-be?
Just listen to your wife! I’m sure they’ve done a good job of forming you. … Just remember that you can’t give from an empty cup; always make sure you ground yourself in prayer and the sacraments, and understand that it’s God’s work, not yours.
Thanks very much! You’ve told the story of the rescue more than a few times over the last five years; what would you say is the most important theme of the story to you?
I had one of the miners ask me, after the rescue, why did people care about him? Why did they care about the miners? They were just these poor old miners; why did the whole world care?
And thinking about that, I realized it was because we’re all brothers and sisters, created in the image and likeness of God. We’ve got the same Daddy. This was a time when the world really put aside all the different things that divide us, and we were united, and it was really a beautiful thing to see.
People will come to me in the church all the time and wonder, “Where is God in the world? Where are the miracles in the world?” Of course they’re there, but we don’t see them all the time. In this case, we saw God’s miracle — because it was a miracle — televised all over the world, and it showed that we are all brothers and sisters and that Our Father is working in this world, and that with him and through him all things are possible. I think that’s really the message of this story.
You’ve talked about the role of faith in this experience and seeing the hand of God in the rescue. At the same time, you brought a lot of know-how and technology to the table. Can you talk about the relationship between faith on the one hand and human knowledge and effort on the other? Where do you see the hand of God in this story?
When we were trying to figure out a way to save the miners, all the computer models and all the calculations showed that it couldn’t be done. But we just felt that if that was our brother down there, or our son, we would go do it. We did have a dream team — I hired Brandon Fisher and the Center Rock people from Pennsylvania; we brought Jeff Hart and his people down, who had been drilling wells in Afghanistan for the military — but even with that, we were not able to do that job. It was more than we could do.
At a very critical time when we were failing very badly, and under tremendous pressure, I went out by myself in to the [Atacama] desert to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. That day, there was Psalm 63:9: “O God, you are my God; for you I long; my body pines for you, like a dry, weary land without water.” And it just struck me that I had gone about it a little bit wrong. Certainly I had been praying a lot for God to help me, but I realized at that time that it was beyond us, and I needed to flip the script. And I was like, “God, you need to do this, and I’ll help you. Because I’m failing, and I’m failing miserably.”
From that point, that was really our saving grace, where I realized that all things are possible with God. One of the questions I’m gonna ask when I get up there is why our all-powerful God wants his children to participate in his works — but he does.
All of our human knowledge, all of our human expertise, was not good enough to drill that hole. God drilled that hole; we just had a good seat.
Did you feel a special connection to the miners and the community because of your common faith?
Very much so, and when we found them, we had fairly constant communication with them, and it was wonderful how they had prayer time there. They were praying together a long time. Our holy father, Pope Benedict, sent blessed rosaries and blessed Bibles that we were able to send down there. That was very impactful for me. We were really all family, and the faith really saved them.
They had some very tough times. It was 17 days before we found them, and they had food and water for three days. The movie did a great job of depicting these men under horrible conditions staying together, working together, forming a bond, and the same with their families. So yeah, faith was there, down 635 meters below ground; it was in Campo Esperanza where the families were, and it was with us on the job site. So faith is really the story of this entire rescue.
Other than those blessed rosaries from Pope Benedict, was there support from the Church in other ways?
Oh, certainly. We had prayer vigils and Masses. The bishop of Santiago came down and blessed our tools. The Church was very involved all the time. It was just wonderful.
We had little bracelets made that said “The 33” just to help us remember what we were drilling for. A month or so after coming home, I was reminiscing about the experience, just thinking about how impactful that was to me that Pope Benedict had taken the time to send the Bibles and rosaries down. And I Googled how you send something to the Vatican, and I sent him my bracelet. I never thought that I would ever hear [back], and I’ll be doggone if just a couple months later, I didn’t get a personal letter from him, thanking us for the bracelet, thanking my wife and me for what we did, and giving us his apostolic blessing.
Has the story ever come up in your homilies?
I have never preached on it, the reason being that this was God’s story. He did it, and I have always been very careful to have the credit goes to where it goes to.
You’ve seen the film. What would you say particularly to faith audiences about what the film gets right?
The film does a great job of showing the faith and the perseverance of the miners, and also of the families. One of the things I hope people take away from this, like I did, that I just couldn’t just sit in my house and let those people sit there in that mine — those were my brothers down there — and that in our families, our communities, our world, there’s a lot of people right now that are still trapped in deep, dark places that are even deeper and darker maybe than those miners were at.
Maybe it’s by their own doing, or maybe by circumstances, but those are our brothers, our sisters, and we can’t just sit around hoping somebody will help them. We’ve got to get out there. It says the labor is plentiful, but the laborers are few. We are the laborers, we need to get out there and do things to help people. And I hope that people understand through this movie that God is alive, all things are possible with him, and miracles still truly happen, and He calls us to participate as well.
If that’s a message people need to hear, is it something we have trouble with? You talked about this story as a privileged moment when the world was united; is there a message here about broading our horizons and viewing people across geographical or other boundaries differently than we do?
Certainly, because we are broken people, and we have a tendency to view others as other. Satan is always trying to separate us, to pry us apart, and Christ is always calling us to communion, to be together, to be family. So certainly by our brokenness we have a tendency to concentrate on the things that separate us, and what we need to do is concentrate on the things that bring us together.
I imagine the film gets some details and technical things wrong…
Many funny things. When [the drill gets] stuck one time, they have us going to Brazil to get fishing magnets. We actually went to Brazil Street in Chile to get them, not Brazil! When we find [the miners], and all of a sudden this little drill bit peeks through and the light streams down, they’re using a little 7⅞ tricone bit which would never be used. And there’s no way the light would have shown like that. Just things like that. They’re Hollywood; you take these things with a grain of salt.
Do you keep in touch with the miners at all?
Yes, we keep in touch with them some, and of course I have been reunited with them through the auspices of Warner Brothers. I went on a PR tour with some of the miners, a little less than a month ago, so I got to spend a lot of time with them. It was good to be reunited with them and to catch up.