Workers face fanfare and battery of tests

CHILE’S 33 rescued miners posed with the president and were poked by doctors yesterday, itching to reunite with families and sleep in their own beds for the first time since a cave-in nearly killed them on August 5.

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 captivated people around the world and set off horn-blowing celebrations across this South American nation.

President Sebastian Pinera posed with the miners, most of whom were wearing bathrobes and slippers, for a group photo, and then 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.

Dr Jorge Montes, deputy director of the Copiapo Regional Hospital, said that some miners would be able to leave the hospital later yesterday despite the physical and emotional impact of 69 days trapped underground.

“Not a single miner has been in a state of shock,” he said, and all should be able to leave soon once they go through a battery of medical and psychological exams.

All the miners remain tense, he said, which is only natural given what they’ve been through, and what they face as they begin their new lives.

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 rescue.

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 to see a joyful end to the longest known ordeal of men trapped underground.

They were restless to begin their new life, but for many, that life may be incomprehensible at first.

Honours and offers of jobs and even vacations 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 drove a taxi to make ends meet before he was caught in the mine collapse. It said it was organising a “Copa 33” tournament in their honour.

The internationally popular Spanish language variety show, Sabado Gigante, said it would dedicate a show to “The 33”.

And a Greek mining company offered to fly each one, with a companion, for a week’s vacation 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 million (€7m) and $20 million (€14m)” 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 checkered safety record into focus and put Chile’s top industry under close scrutiny.

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


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