Chile President makes safety pledge as miners savour freedom

Chile President makes safety pledge as miners savour freedom

Chile's 33 rescued miners were reported in good health today as they met the country's president who pledged tougher safety laws.

President Sebastian Pinera posed with the miners, most of whom were wearing bathrobes and slippers, for a group photo in the hospital where they are being assessed,

Relatives were organising welcome-home parties and trying to hold off an onslaught of demands by those seeking to share in the glory of the amazing rescue that entranced people around the world and set off horn-blowing celebrations across the South American nation.

Pinera celebrated the rescue as an achievement that will bring Chile a new level of respect around the world.

The miners and the country will never be the same, Pinera said.

"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 Pinera, who took office in March as Chile's first elected right-wing president in a half-century.

None of the miners are suffering from shock despite their harrowing entrapment, a reflection of the care and feeding sent through a narrow borehole by a team of hundreds during their 69 days trapped underground. 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.

The men, their eyes hidden behind sunglasses to protect from the sun and glare of lights, emerged to tears and embraces from relatives, and cheers and patriotic chants, as tens of millions of people watched on television around the world.

All of them remain tense and spent a restless first night in the hospital, the doctors said.

For many, what they experience next may be incomprehensible at first.

Honours and offers of jobs and even holidays poured in from around the world for men who walked into a mine on August 5 as workers doing a dirty job to support their children or buy a house.

They were lifted out weeks later to find themselves international symbols of perseverance - as well as icons of patriotism at home.

Spain's Real Madrid football team invited the 33 to attend a game in their stadium.

Chile's football federation said it would offer a job with its youth teams to Franklin Lobos, a former national team player who had later found himself driving a taxi to make ends meet before he was caught in the mine collapse. It also said it was organising a "Copa 33" tournament in their honour.

A Greek mining company offered to fly each one, with a companion, for a week's holiday in the Mediterranean.

Pinera, meanwhile, vowed that those responsible for the mine collapse "will not go unpunished. Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility."

The rescue will end up costing "somewhere between $10-20m (€7.1m - €14.2m)," a third covered by private donations with the rest coming from state-owned miner Codelco - the country's largest company-- and the government itself, Pinera said.

Mining accounts for 40% of the Chilean state's earnings and the rescue's details were run by its operations manager, Andre Sougarett.

The August 5 collapse brought the 125-year-old San Jose mine's chequered safety record into focus and put Chile's top industry under close scrutiny. Many believe the collapse occurred because the mine was overworked and violated safety codes.

The families of 27 of the 33 rescued miners have sued its owners for negligence and compensatory damages.

Also suing the San Esteban company is Gino Cortez, a 40-year-old miner who lost his left leg from the knee down a month before the accident as he was leaving the mine after his shift and a rock fell on him. He contends he was hurt because the mine was short on the metallic screens that protect miners from such collapses.

After the collapse, Pinera fired top regulators and created a commission to investigate both the accident and the industry's Sernageomin regulatory agency. Some action was swift: the agency shut down at least 18 small mines for safety violations.

"The mine has been proven dangerous, but what's worse are the mine owners who don't offer any protection to men who work in mining," said Patricio Aguilar, 60, of nearby Copiapo, during celebrations of the meticulously executed rescue.

Advances in technology notwithstanding, mining remains a dangerous profession in the smaller mines in northern Chile, which employ about 10,000 people.

Since 2000, about 34 people have died every year on average in mining accidents in Chile - with a high of 43 in 2008.

Most of the rescued miners live in Copiapo, a gritty, blue-collar city surrounded by the Acatama desert. Copiapo's central plaza was jammed with thousands of revellers watching the operation on a giant screen as street vendors hawked Chilean flags bearing the faces of "Los 33."

The last miner, shift foreman Luis Urzua, emerged from the Phoenix rescue capsule after the 2,041-foot (622-metre) ascent to a joyous celebration.

With hard-hats held to their hearts, the pair led the rescue team in singing the national anthem.

The rescue exceeded expectations every step of the way. Initially, officials said it might December before the men could get out. Once the drill that opened the escape shaft pierced the men's subterranean prison, they estimated it would take 36 to 48 hours to get everyone out.

The actual time: 22 hours, 39 minutes.

At some point, the men will need to decide whether they will return to the mines.

Many of their relatives are dead-set against it, 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 ply 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."

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