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Chile's textbook mine rescue brings global respect

Thursday, October 14, 2010 - 2:18pm

their new lives.

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

Honors and offers of jobs and even vacations poured in from around the world for men who walked into a mine on Aug. 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 organizing a "Copa 33" tournament in their honor.

The internationally popular Spanish language variety show "Sabado Gigante" announced it would dedicate a show to "The 33" and invited fans to suggest questions for them.

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) and $20 million," 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 percent of the Chilean state's earnings and the rescue's details were run by its operations manager, Andre Sougarret.

The Aug. 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. Many believe the collapse occurred because the mine was overworked and lacked such essential safety features as a reinforced escape shaft.

The families of 27 of the 33 rescued miners have sued its owners for negligence and compensatory damages. A separate suit was being prepared accusing the government of failing to enforce its safety regulations.

Also suing the San Esteban company is Gino Cortez, a 40-year-old miner who lost his lower left leg a month before the mine collapsed when a rock fell on him in an area that lacked a protective metal screen.

"This mine has to close," rescue coordinator Sougarret said Thursday.

Pinera said he will triple the budget of mine safety agency Sernageomin, whose top regulators he fired after the collapse. He also created a commission to investigate the accident and recommend changes. 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 here 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, according to Sernageomin data.

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 revelers 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-meter) ascent to a joyous celebration.

With hardhats held to their hearts, Urzua and the president led the rescue team in singing the national anthem. Broadcast by state TV, it seemed ubiquitous in small country of 16 million roiling with pride.

The rescue exceeded expectations every step of the way. Initially, officials said it might be 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.

The only real glitch was indeed minor - it became bit difficult to open and close the escape capsule's door as the day wore on, said Laurence Golborne, the mining minister who Pinera put in charge of the rescue. Early Thursday morning, the last rescuer who helped the miners into the escape capsule came up safely to end the operation.

Golborne has won high marks for his deft management of the closely scrutinized rescue, and Chilean media have been abuzz with discussion of him as Pinera's most likely successor. Elected in December 2009 to a four-year term, Pinera is constitutionally barred from running again.

Chile has promised to care for the miners for six months at least - until they can be sure each man has readjusted.

Psychiatrists and other experts predict their lives will be anything but normal.

Previously unimaginable riches awaited men who had risked their lives going into the unstable mine for about $1,600 a month.

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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Associated Press writers Michael Warren, Franklin Briceno, Peter Prengaman, Vivian Sequera and Eva Vergara at the mine and in Copiapo, Chile; as well as AP television producer Theodora Tongas in Athens, contributed to this report.

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