Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rescued miners and the perks

COPIAPO, Chile - Chile's 33 newly rescued miners recovered from their ordeal on Thursday while also pondering the celebrity status they have gained following a more than two-month entrapment deep under a remote desert. Most of the miners were found to be in decent health despite being stuck in a collapsed mine tunnel since August 5. The men were resting in a hospital after being hoisted to the surface in a rescue operation watched by millions worldwide. One of the miners had pneumonia and was being treated with antibiotics. In a complicated but flawless operation under the far northern desert of the South American nation, the miners were hauled out one-by-one through 2,050 feet of rock in a metal capsule little wider than a man's shoulders. With much of the world transfixed on TV, celebrations erupted in Chile. The miners, who set a world record for survival underground, were welcomed as national heroes. It took about 22 hours from the time the first miner was brought to the surface until the last miner was pulled to freedom late on Wednesday, and then another roughly 2-1/2 hours until the last of the six rescuers also emerged from the gold and copper mine early on Thursday. "It's so incredible that they all made it out alive," said 51-year-old Luis Pina, a miner, hugging a perfect stranger as he celebrated in the main square in Copiapo where thousands of people cheered and waved red, white and blue Chilean flags. "We have done what the entire world was waiting for," said shift foreman Luis Urzua who enforced tight rations of their limited food and supplies before help could arrive. "We had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing." The first rescue worker d own was last up — Manuel Gonzalez, a mine rescue expert with Chile's state-owned Codelco copper company, talked the men through the final hours inside the mine. Then, he spent 26 minutes alone down below before he strapped himself into the capsule for the ride up. He reached the surface at 12:32 a.m. Thursday local time (11:32 p.m. Wednesday ET) to hugs from his comrades and President Sebastian Pinera. Despite the suffering they went through, the previously unknown miners now have plenty to look forward to if they want to take up the offers open to them. Among a flood of invitations and gifts, Real Madrid and Manchester United have invited the miners — many of whom are avid soccer fans — to watch them play in Europe. Book, film contracts A flamboyant local singer-turned-businessman has given them $10,000 each, while Apple boss Steve Jobs has sent them all a latest iPod and a Greek firm has offered an islands tour. Most of the miners are unlikely to return to their old employment, with various job offers, plus book and film contracts, coming their way in the wake of their experience. President Pinera, whose popularity has risen over his handling of the crisis, was at the San Jose mine in the Atacama desert to greet each man as he emerged and plans to host them at his palace in the capital Santiago. "I hand the shift over to you," Urzua, who was the last miner out, told Pinera. Having suffered a massive earthquake in February that killed more than 500 people, Chileans were euphoric about the happy ending to their latest challenge and proud of the technology that went into the successful rescue. Church bells and car horns sounded across Chile in celebration, while family members and well-wishers both wept and laughed for joy outside the mine. President Barack Obama and other world leaders sent messages of congratulations, saying the miners' survival was an inspiration to all. When the mine caved in on August 5, the men were all thought dead in yet another of Latin America's litany of mining accidents. But rescuers found them 17 days later with a bore hole the width of a grapefruit. That tiny hole became an umbilical cord used to pass hydration gels, water and food to keep them alive until a bigger space could be bored to bring them up. Mining has played a central but often sad role in Latin America since the Spanish conquistadors' first hunt for gold. For centuries, conditions were appalling but they have improved radically in recent decades and the industry has helped fuel an economic boom in some nations including Chile. The rescue process — via a metal capsule named Phoenix after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes — will do no harm to the reputation of Chile, which is already an investor's favorite in the region due to its economic progress. "I hope that this serves as a lesson so that things change in Chilean mining," said Gonzalez, the rescuer, after emerging. "I hope this never happens again."

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