Stories tagged digging

Aug
28
2007

I don't give these out to just anyone: Otzi has one just like it.  (Photo by Sarodeo on flickr.com)
I don't give these out to just anyone: Otzi has one just like it. (Photo by Sarodeo on flickr.com)
Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou, two brothers working in a Chinese coal mine, were trapped underground with no supplies after the mine they were working in collapsed. The mine, located in Beijing’s Fangshan district, was illegal and had no oxygen, ventilation, or emergency exits. Officials called off the rescue effort after only a day, determining that there was no chance that the Meng brothers could have survived, and that further attempts to extract the bodies would only put the rescue workers at risk themselves. Family members placed food offerings at the collapsed entrance to the mine, and burned “ghost money” for the men to use in the afterlife.

Picture everyone’s surprise, then, when the Meng brothers clawed their way out of the mine five days later, weak and dehydrated, but alive. It seems that Xianchen and Xianyou didn’t give up when they heard the rescue workers stop digging, but instead started digging in the direction of the last sound. They had some small light for the first two days, thanks to their cellphones, but when the batteries died they resorted to listening and feeling around with their fingers. To survive, the brothers... (wait for it)... ate coal and drank their own urine! Oh, and they dug through 66 feet of coal and rock with their picks and hands.

With that, Xianchen and Xianyou have officially dug their way on to my very exclusive list of People Way Way Tougher Than Me. The Meng brothers are now in the good company of Otzi the Iceman, The Mad Monk Rasputin, and Jack Palance (which makes them, I suppose, the only living people officially “Way Way Tougher Than Me”).

Let’s examine the achievement:

The dig - As I said, 66 feet of rock and coal, dug at a 75 degree angle (steep). The shaft was so narrow that only one Meng could dig at a time. They averaged about one yard for every six hours of digging, having to constantly shore up the walls and ceiling of their tunnel to prevent debris from sliding back on them.

Survival - The main problem would be the lack of oxygen, especially in an unventilated illegal mine like theirs. The article I read doesn’t say much about this, but it seems that there was either air trapped in the mine already, or sufficient oxygen filtered down from the blocked opening. Either way, it did the trick. The coal that the miners ate would have had no nutritional value, but it probably gave them a “full” feeling. They get points for eating it, though, and bonus points for being quoted as saying “We ate coal and thought it tasted delicious.” The brothers also used two empty water bottles they found in the mine to save their urine. Almost no one likes drinking urine, but the Mengs did it anyway. Urine drinking can keep a person alive for several extra days if no other liquids are available. I had always assumed that the more times one drank their own urine, the worse it would be. It turns out that the opposite is true - the body absorbs a little bit of the toxins from consumed urine, and so the kidneys have a slightly smaller amount of toxins to filter out into the next batch of urine. Therefore, the urine becomes a little more potable and water-like each time it is consumed, but there’s less of it (as the body absorbs some of the water too). So the problem with drinking one’s own urine is that it can’t be done indefinitely, because eventually one will just run out. Also, one’s body is forced to reabsorb all the toxins it had tried to get rid of. Also, there’s the whole drinking pee issue.

Anyway, it all worked out for the Mengs, who have since declared that their 20 year mining careers are now over. Enjoy your place on the wall of fame, guys. We salute you.