Chilean Miners' Joy Recalls the Tale of Benny Hooper

The nation was transfixed in 1957 by a boy stuck in a well on Long Island

By Gabe Pressman
|  Thursday, Oct 21, 2010  |  Updated 4:01 PM EDT
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Chilean Miners' Joy Recalls the Tale of Benny Hooper

Newsday file

Benjamin Hooper is taken away in an ambulance.

The scenes of joy as the 33 miners and their loved ones were reunited in Chile are unforgettable.

In a long journalistic career, I can attest that the moments that live in my memory are those when people experienced great sorrow -- or great joy.

Back in 1957, when I was a young reporter, I covered a story that, in an eerie way, reminds me of what happened in Chile.  A seven-year-old boy named Benjamin Hopper was trapped in a well in Manorville in Suffolk County. We didn’t know whether he was alive or dead.

Benny fell into the well being dug for irrigation by his father. He was trapped. Hundreds of construction workers, firemen, policemen. a physician and news people rushed to the scene. The rescue workers tried feverishly but, as the hours passed, hope diminished.

The well was 21 feet deep, 20 inches wide. Benny could be heard moaning in the first few hours. But then there was no sound, no sign that he was alive.  The more than 200 rescue workers battled shifting sands to rescue Benny. The story was carried across America. A nation hoped and prayed.

A second shaft was dug. Tension spread among the onlookers. At one point there was a false report that the boy was dead. It was carried as true across the United States on radio and tv. I remember calling the NBC desk frantically that this report was not verified, that we should not assume the worst yet.

As I watched the faces of the Chilean miners’ loved ones waiting for their men to be brought to the surface, I saw anguish, tears and joy. I saw hugs and kisses. And I thought back to those hours on the hill in Manorville.

Benny Hooper’s mother, Borghild,  had watched from a window of their house. The doctor at the scene said it was possible -- but not probable -- that Benny was still alive.  But the rescuers refused to give up. They dug feverishly to build a rescue shaft alongside the well. Oxygen was pumped into the shaft where the boy fell.  And then, at 748 p.m. on May 17, there was a cry of “He’s alive!” from the crowd of rescue workers at the top of the shafts. A local contractor had reached the boy and was bringing him out.

According to a New York Times account, a woman sobbed -- and then there were cheers and applause. I saw Benny taken to an ambulance with his mother and they were moved  to a nearby hospital.  The boy was stunned and uncomfortable but very much alive.

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and pundits who try to outdo each other in seeing or predicting the worst, it’s wonderful to be reporting on good news.

I think Americans hunger for it. As the President of Chile said, the success of the rescue efforts there made Chile look good to the rest of the world -- and made Chileans feel good about themselves.

A half century ago, New York had its own rescue story and we took Benny Hooper to our hearts. Not a bad prescription for what makes a great story in journalism today or tomorrow.

Special thanks to Newsday for the amazing file photos.

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