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Chile miners start new lives, adjust to freedom

In this photo released by the Chilean Presidential Press Office, Chile's President Sebastian Pinera, fourth left front row, sits among the 33 miners freed from the San Jose mine during a visit to the hospital where they are undergoing a medical check up in Copiapo, Chile, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. The 69-day underground ordeal reached its end Wednesday night after the trapped miners were hauled up in a cage through a narrow hole drilled through 2,000 feet, (700 meters) of rock. In this photo released by the Chilean Presidential Press Office, Chile's President Sebastian Pinera, fourth left front row, sits among the 33 miners freed from the San Jose mine during a visit to the hospital where they are undergoing a medical check up in Copiapo, Chile, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. The 69-day underground ordeal reached its end Wednesday night after the trapped miners were hauled up in a cage through a narrow hole drilled through 2,000 feet, (700 meters) of rock. (AP Photo/Chilean Presidential Press Office, Jose Manuel de la Maza)
By Michael Warren
Associated Press Writer / October 14, 2010

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COPIAPO, Chile—The Chilean miners began their unfamiliar new lives as national heroes Thursday and got a taste of what awaits them outside the hospital doors -- a deluge of TV producers, writers and even soccer teams all desperate for a piece of their story.

A day after their epic rescue, still wearing the oddly fashionable sunglasses that protected them from the bright light when they were hoisted from 2,000 feet underground, the men posed in hospital bathrobes for a group photo with President Sebastian Pinera.

Unity helped the men, known as "los 33," survive for 69 days underground, including more than two weeks when no one knew whether they were alive.

But the moment they walk out the hospital doors, they'll go beyond the reach of a government operation that has cared for, fed and protected them in a carefully coordinated campaign to ensure each of them would be in top condition.

"Now they're going to have to find their equilibrium and take care of themselves," the hospital chaplain, the Rev. Luis Lopez, told The Associated Press.

They got quite the preview Thursday of what lies ahead. On their first full day of fresh air, the miners were probably the 33 most in-demand people on the planet.

A Greek mining company wants to bring them to the sunny Aegean islands, competing with rainy Chiloe in Chile's southern archipelago, whose tourism bureau wants them to stay for a week.

Soccer teams in Madrid, Manchester and Buenos Aires want them in their stadiums. Bolivia's president wants them at his palace. TV host Don Francisco wants them all on his popular "Sabado Gigante" show in Miami.

Hearing that miner Edison Pena jogged regularly in the tunnels below the collapsed rock, the New York City marathon invited him to participate in next month's race.

What about a reality show? Some other kind of TV work? Why not, said television writer-producer and Oscar nominee Lionel Chetwynd, who said he expected projects were being pitched around Hollywood within hours of the rescue.

"Television is a quick-response medium," he said, joking: "In fact, I think I'll call my agent when we get off the phone."

Doctors said three of the men could be discharged from the hospital as early as Thursday evening, with others following Friday and over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the families and friends of the men of the San Jose mine were organizing welcome-home parties, street celebrations, big dinners and even a few weddings, while trying at the same time to hold off the onslaught of demands from the media to learn more about how they survived.

The government promised six months of psychological treatment and help with medical needs. It made sure each has a bank account only he can operate, and coached them on dealing with the media.

The rescue team even asked Guinness World Records to honor all 33 with the record for longest time trapped underground, rather than the last miner out, Luis Urzua. Guinness spokeswoman Jamie Panas said the organization was studying the question.

The men certainly have an extraordinary story to tell. No one before them had been trapped so long and survived. Their rescue, one by one throughout the day Wednesday in a narrow capsule, set car horns and vuvuzelas blasting around Chile.

At least one of the men kept a diary of life down below. Victor Segovia, a 48-year-old electrician and father of five, scribbled down so many details during their time underground that he had to ask the crews to send down more pencils and paper. He was the 15th miner pulled out.

Psychiatrists and other experts predict their lives will be anything but normal now that they're free. Previously unimaginable riches awaited them after years, in some cases whole careers, going into mines for about $1,600 a month.

Most of the rescued miners live in Copiapo, a gritty, blue-collar city surrounded by the Acatama desert where street vendors have been hawking Chilean flags bearing the faces of "Los 33." They must decide whether to return to mining.

Many of their relatives are dead-set against it, for obvious reasons, but they also acknowledged that they probably couldn't stop the miners from going down again.

Mario Medina Mejia, a local geologist, said plenty of Chilean miners have returned underground after close calls, and he compared it to sailors who survive shipwrecks only to ride the waves again.

"If they need the work they will return to the mine," he said. "It's their life, their culture, the way they make their living."

For his part, Pinera, the Chilean president, faces a new reality as well. He was a defining face of the rescue, embracing Luis Urzua when he climbed out of the pod to become the 33rd miner out, then leading a joyous crowd in the national anthem.

"They have experienced a new life, a rebirth," he said, and so has Chile: "We aren't the same that we were before the collapse on Aug. 5. Today Chile is a country much more unified, stronger and much more respected and loved in the entire world."

The billionaire businessman-turned-politician also promised "radical" changes and tougher safety laws to improve how businesses treat their workers.

"Never again in our country will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San Jose mine, and in many other places in our country," said Pinera, who took office in March as Chile's first elected right-wing president in a half-century.

Among the most compelling stories from the ordeal will be Urzua's. He was the shift foreman Aug. 5, when 700,000 tons of rock sealed the men into the mine's lower reaches, and his strict rationing of food and supplies helped them stay alive until help came.

"I think he was a fundamental pillar that enabled them to keep discipline," said Manuel Gonzalez, the first rescuer down and the last to leave.

"The guys that were down there, I think they never lost their hope," he added. "There were critical moments, but at the end they never lost their hope because they had very positive leaders who kept the group unified."

None of the miners are suffering from shock despite their harrowing entrapment, a reflection of the daily care and feeding sent through a narrow bore hole by a team of hundreds. Even a team of psychologists helped keep them sane.

"All of them have been subjected to high levels of stress and most of them have tolerated it in a truly exceptional way," said Dr. Jorge Montes, deputy director of the Copiapo Regional Hospital. "We don't see any problems of a psychological or a medical nature."

"We were completely surprised," added Health Minister Jaime Manalich. "We called this a real miracle, because any effort we could have made doesn't explain the health condition these people have today."

After weeks of fear, desperation and finally hope, the miners were pulled out one by one in a capsule that carried them through a narrow tube of solid rock -- a dizzying 23-hour marathon of rescues.

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Associated Press writers Frank Bajak, Franklin Briceno, Peter Prengaman, Vivian Sequera and Eva Vergara at the mine and in Copiapo, Chile; AP television producer Theodora Tongas in Athens; and AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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