World hungry for 'Los 33' stories

2010-10-15 09:08

Copiapo -The Chilean miners began their unfamiliar new lives as national heroes on Thursday and got a taste of what awaits them outside the hospital doors - a swarm of reporters, TV producers, publicity agents 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 622m underground, the men posed in hospital bathrobes for a group photo with President Sebastian Piñera.

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 of the hospital doors, they'll go beyond the reach of a government operation that has cared for, fed and protected them in a carefully co-ordinated campaign to ensure each of them would leave in top condition.

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

In demand

They got quite the preview on 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 the country'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."

Three men discharged

Three of the men were discharged from the hospital on Thursday evening and others were expected to follow on Friday and over the weekend.

Chilean state television showed the men leaving Copiapo's regional hospital by a side exit and getting into a white van.

Among the three was Pena. State TV showed him being enthusiastically greeted by applauding neighbours as he arrived at his home. He described his raucous greeting as "very beautiful".
"I thought I would never return," he said.

Bolivian Carlos Mamani, the only foreigner among the group, and Juan Illanes, also headed to their homes.

The miners’ families and friends were organising welcome-home dinners, street celebrations and even weddings.

Lilianett Ramirez, whose husband Mario Gomez promised her a church wedding in the "Dear Lila" letter Piñera read on TV when the men were found alive, said they have now set a date: "If God and the Virgin desire it, we'll get married on November 7, his birthday," she said, beaming as she left the hospital.

The government promised six months of psychological treatment, made sure each has a bank account only he can operate, and coached them on dealing with rude questions.

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

A changed country

The men certainly have an extraordinary story to tell. No one before them had been trapped so long and survived.

Piñera also was the 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 August 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 Piñera, who took office in March as Chile's first elected right-wing president in 50 years.

Among the most compelling stories from the ordeal will be Urzua's. He was the shift foreman when 700 000 tons of rock sealed them in. It was his strict rationing of the 48-hour food supply that helped them stay alive until help came.

Extreme rationing

Early reports on their food supply were based on memories and partial information from down below.

Based on new details the miners shared on Thursday with their families, the rationing appears to have been even more extreme than previously thought.

"He told me they only had 10 cans of tuna to share, and water, but it isn't true the thing about milk, because it was bad, out of date," Alberto Sepulveda said after visiting his brother Dario.

Other family members were told the tuna amounted to about half a capful from the top of a soda bottle - and that the only water they could drink tasted of oil.

"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."

Very good health

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, and the team of psychologists that helped keep them sane.

"We don't see any problems of a psychological or a medical nature," said Dr Jorge Montes, deputy director of the Copiapo Regional Hospital.

"We were completely surprised," added Health Minister Jaime Manalich. "Any effort we could have made doesn't explain the health condition these people have today."

The miners told relatives on Thursday that their rescue ride was as smooth as a skyscraper elevator.

The rescue was planned with extreme care, with plans to monitor the miners by video on the way up for signs of panic, provide them with oxygen masks and dark glasses to protect their eyes, and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean swelter to chilly desert air.

Going back down

The cause of the August 5 collapse at the San Jose Mine awaits a formal investigation, but the miners' families said they knew it was overexploited and increasingly dangerous, and went in despite that for the slightly higher wages, about $1 600 a month.

Descending for 7km below the Atacama Desert, the mine has been giving up copper and gold since 1885, leaving it honeycombed and unstable.

The miners said it felt like an earthquake when the shaft finally collapsed above them, filling the lower reaches of the mine with suffocating dust. It took hours before they could even begin to see.

Why any of them would go back underground may be hard for outsiders to understand. But most of these men have done it all their lives, and so have their relatives in Copiapo, a gritty, blue-collar city where street vendors hawk Chilean flags bearing the faces of "Los 33".

Dario Sepulveda's family wants him to stop working the mines, but they haven't discussed it yet.
"We're giving him time for all that," Alberto Sepulveda said.