By Antoine Sanfuentes, Deputy Bureau Chief for NBC News Washington
As I watched the efforts of my Chilean compatriots lift the 33 miners rise from their hellish ordeal last week, I was reminded of another amazing rescue in Chilean history, one that succeeded without the marvels of modern technology.
My father of Chilean descent proudly raised us to appreciate our roots. The Sanfuentes' left Spain at the beginning of the 19th century, seeking new opportunities in Latin America. As a child, I had always heard about my relative Juan Luis Sanfuentes, who served as Chile's President from 1915-1920. But it wasn't until much later that I learned he played a part in the country's other great rescue.
In 1914, the great explorer Ernest Shackleton and a crew of 28 men set out to explore the Antarctic plains. As the tall ship Endurance arrived on the edge of the ice, its hull was soon consumed by this frozen impenetrable place. Shackleton was faced with an impossible task as he and the members of his crew, miles from nowhere and no way of communicating to the outside world, faced certain death. After watching the ship sink and setting camp on a nearby island, Shackleton seemingly had only one choice: To sail a small boat across a vast stretch of sea and ice to seek a rescue for the rest of his crew.
Fourteen months passed before Shackleton and a small crew sailed the 23-foot whaler 800 miles to the nearest inhabited island of South Georgia. Even by today's nautical challenges, this primitive boat had all the odds stacked against it. The 22 sailors left behind waited at the camp on the ice, keeping themselves alive by eating mostly seal and penguin. It took another five months for Shackleton to successfully return after President Sanfuentes dispatched the navy ship Yelcho to the rescue. Pilot Luis Alberto Pardo Villalon heroically braved the Antarctic peninsula after being beaten back three different times by the ice. On his fourth attempt, he was successful.
President Sanfuentes' urgent telegram read "please greet Sir Ernest Shackleton and place the Government patrol boat Yelcho at his disposition, in order that this celebrated explorer, who I hope will be extremely successful, may be able to rescue his gallant comrades."
Growing up, we spent many vacations exploring Chile's vast territories: On one father-son trip we drove the Carretera Austral, the road built to link the Patagonian region to the modern cities to the north. Our trip took us through the fjords, where we overcame many obstacles, including washed-out roads and steep ledges, as we drove hundreds of miles of rocky terrain. At the time, there were no hotels or even restaurants, but this was not an issue, as we relied on the kindness of complete strangers--and there were plenty to help us along the way. That trip taught me that Chileans understand survival with a great sense of national pride.
During college I spent a summer to the north of Copiapo, in Arica, situated at the Peruvian border. It was there that I learned of the earliest Chileans, the "Chinchorros." In some ways their resistance to the desert, along with their complex family structures and beliefs in the afterlife, allowed them to thrive for thousands of years. It is perhaps this strong sense of family and core beliefs which has always unified this country, something that has always been the fabric of Chile. With a great desert to the north, through Patagonia and to Tierra del Fuego to the south, domesticating this land is part of their DNA.