Cold, dark, silent. Close to death. Buried in the depths of a collapsed, illegal coal mine, Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou knew they had been given up for dead.The rescue effort had been abandoned. The two brothers could no longer hear the sound of mechanical diggers, drills and spades above their heads. Dismayed and exhausted, they had stopped yelling frantically for help.How long had it been? Hours, days, weeks? There was no way of knowing. When their mobile phone batteries died, they lost all track of time.And place. With the silence and the darkness came disorientation. They were unsure which way led to the surface and which led deeper into the mountain. They had little evidence that they were even still alive. It was like being lost inside a tomb.
Above ground, their families were already preparing a funeral. In accordance with tradition, relatives had started burning ‘ghost money’ for the two brothers to spend in the other world. Negotiations had begun with the local authorities about compensation. Yet down below, the Mengs stubbornly refused to die.Driven by a powerful instinct to survive, they fought against the earth and the darkness, against death itself. The brothers started digging. They hacked and shovelled, using a single pick and their bare hands. They were only a few dozen metres from the surface, but despite twenty years of mining experience, they were so panicked and confused by the darkness that they started to worry they were tunnelling deeper into the mountain. They changed direction once, twice, three times, before deciding to head straight up.
With every hour that passed they grew wearier and more depressed. It grew harder to dig, exhausting even to crawl. They filled water bottles with urine. The taste was so foul, they could only drink in small sips and felt like crying after they swallowed. Desperately hungry, Xianchen took to nibbling finger-sized pieces of coal, not knowing it had zero nutritional value. Yet they kept digging. Their companionship was a source of comfort and strength. They slept in each other’s arms to stave off the cold and told jokes about their wives to maintain morale. ‘My wife will be happy after I die. She can find a rich husband in Shenyang to replace me,’ mused Xianchen out loud, then laughingly contradicted himself. ‘But then again, she is an ugly woman with two children so it will be hard for her to remarry.’ Humour does not get much blacker than laughter in a collapsed coal mine. But it kept them going for six days, until finally, miraculously, they scratched their way to the surface.Weak and close to starvation, they emerged blinking into the light, then staggered to the village where they were met with a hero’s welcome and incredulous joy that the dead could rise from their tombs. They were carried off to hospital, where the doctors treated their damaged kidneys and journalists bombarded them with questions. The mine owner, meanwhile, was on the run. Aware that the standard bribes would not protect him from a deadly accident investigation, he had fled as soon as he heard of the collapse.The survival of the magnificent Meng brothers made front-page headlines in Beijing. Their experience captured the Chinese zeitgeist of the past thirty years—gritty, poor, dirty, illegal, dangerous, willing to go to almost any lengths to get ahead, ill as a result, but surviving long after being written off. They had been trapped in a carbon hell in which they dug, ate, inhaled and were almost suffocated by coal, yet they had lived to tell the tale.