MORE than an hour before he was due to deliver his speech, Jose Henriquez sat calmly in a dark corner of East Kirkby Miners’ Welfare clutching a tiny Bible.
A steady stream of people were already shuffling in among rows of neatly arranged tables and chairs in the concert room, eager to secure a space near the stage.
The 56-year-old was one of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped 700 metres underground after the San Jose mine in Copiapo collapsed in August last year.
With millions of people having watched in wonder as they were brought to the surface after 69 days, everyone had questioned how they had managed to survive – especially when they had no contact with the surface for the first 17 days.
So it was no surprise that more than 500 turned up to hear first hand.
“The first 17 days, they were the most difficult and complicated days,” said the drill master, speaking through an interpreter.
After the blast there were no lights, he said, apart from their lanterns. The air pipes had been blown apart by the explosion, but fortunately there were enough small gaps where the air could circulate.
They found they had to stretch out three days of rations, leaving them to eat just half a teaspoon of tuna fish a day as well as taking “enforced fasts.”
As a preacher, the men turned to Mr Henriquez for inspiration and hope.
“I said no problem, I only have one condition. I want you to pray to the God I pray to – a living God. So we all got on our faces and lay down in the dirt, humbled ourselves before the living God who is able to do everything – who could walk through the walls and be there in the mine.”
Mr Henriquez said that daily prayers helped strengthen spirits so they could keep faith that they would be rescued.
It was only after a week that they had the first glimmer of hope, when they heard drilling.
But he said at 700 metres down it was “like finding a needle in a haystack” and the first drill failed to find them.
Mr Henriquez claims it was a miracle that the second drill was on target because it was on course to miss before hitting a rock and changing direction.
And he recalled the “blessing” when capsules were finally able to send down food, water, messages from family, and 33 small Bibles, each bearing one of the miners’ names.
Mr Henriquez was the 24th miner to be brought to the surface and his wife Blanca embraced him tightly as he emerged.
George Atterby, 82, of Skegby, was an audience member with a particular bond with Mr Henriquez. The former miner survived the Sutton pit disaster of 1957 in which five of his colleagues died and 15, including him, were seriously injured.
“I was very excited to be able to meet one of the very men myself. It is a wonderful thing. We have that in common. I think he needs to travel about and explain how they existed underground for so long.”
The visit was part of the 34th man tour – named because the 33 miners felt God’s presence – organised by the Church Mission Society.