Cheers and tears as first miners emerge in Chile

Calmly stepping out of the claustrophobic rescue cage, Florencio Avalos embraced his tearful seven-year-old son and let fresh air fill his lungs as he tasted freedom after 10 long weeks and Chile erupted in joy.

Whistles and screams of delight greeted the return to the surface of the missile-shaped Phoenix rescue capsule as a captive world audience applauded the arrival of Avalos and paid tribute to an unparalleled feat of survival.

After more than 68 days trapped deep underground in a damp, hot mine shaft plagued by doubt and fear, the reactions of the first miners as they were pulled from their subterranean hell were awe-inspiring.


View our gallery of images from the mine rescue.

Wearing dark glasses to shield his vulnerable eyes from the light, Avalos kissed his wife and comforted his son who was overwhelmed by the tension as the creaking winch hoisted his father up more than 600m.

After receiving a bear-hug from Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, Avalos embraced relatives of the other miners, some unable to hold back tears, amid a throng of hundreds of journalists and wellwishers.


The celebrations only got louder when the second miner, Mario Sepulveda, emerged and put on an exuberant show that completely defied the gravity of his nightmarish ordeal.

Delving into a bag, 40-year-old Sepulveda produced rocks and handed them as ironic gifts to officials and rescuers alike as he laughed and led the congregation in an impromptu chant of celebration.

Later he was more serious. “I have been with God and with the devil. I fought between the two. I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get us out of there,” he said.


Chilean miner Juan Illanes is taken to a triage area of a field hospital after he was the third to be rescued at the San Jose mine. (Reuters)

Sadly, the elation of some of 31-year-old Avalos’s family members turned to horror when a media scrum trampled their humble tent in a mad rush to secure that all-important interview.

Avalos’s father Alfonso, tears running down his face, had just exclaimed: “It’s a huge joy. I’m so happy” and hugged his wife Maria Silva when things turned ugly.

Reporters pushed and shoved to be the first to interview them, pulling on the hair of those in the way, throwing punches and almost knocking others to the ground.

The chaos and jostling marred the celebrations as the news workers rushed forward as one to capture the historic moment and surrounded the tent on all sides in walls of cameras and journalists.

The family retreated, and a frightened-looking Maria angrily hit out at journalists close to her with the Chilean flag bunched in her hand.

The mayhem stood out in an otherwise festive occasion in which families and reporters alike shared the euphoria of seeing the miners emerging one by one from the earth.

It was also revealing of the media pressure that has built up around the 33 miners, who have become national icons in Chile, and internationally famous.

Since their discovery on August 22, alive against all hope, their extraordinary struggle to survive has become an epic tale of human endurance followed closely by a captive audience around the globe.

The 32 Chileans and one Bolivian have become national heroes and imminent media stars, with books, movies and a barrage of press coverage likely from the moment they emerge from the mine.

In the ultimate sign of just how big a spectacle the miners’ rescue has become, television megastar Don Francisco — one of the biggest celebrities in all of Latin America — was broadcasting from the site.


Relatives of Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani react to his rescue in Copiapo. (Reuters)

“I haven’t seen so much media attention since the Apollo XI back in 1969,” said the Chilean performer, referring to the Nasa mission that sent men to the moon for the first time.

In a party atmosphere, balloons drifted into the air and confetti showered on the heads of the crowds in pictures transmitted live to televisions sets and computer screens across the world.

Camp Hope, as the camp at the entrance to the fateful mine has been baptised, was home to a couple of hundred relatives of the miners when the accident first occurred trapping them August 5.

As the rescue neared, the number of relatives swelled to 800 — but was quickly dwarfed by about 2 000 media employees who arrived from around the world to cover the momentous event.

Winners, losers
The accident shone a spotlight on lax mining controls in the world’s top copper producer, but also highlighted a mature industry that has the machinery and expertise to handle one of the world’s most challenging rescues ever.

Here are the winners and losers in a saga that has attracted worldwide attention.

Winners

  • Piñera has seen his popularity surge since the miners were found alive following a sloppy start with a series of government fumbles that enraged relatives of the men and the public watching the drama. The self-made billionaire is likely to benefit from his renewed popularity as he seeks to pass controversial legislation that hikes taxes on foreign mining companies operating in the country.
  • State-run Codelco and private miners have had some free publicity with the months-long operation to free the miners. Codelco, the world’s top copper producer, has led the rescue, showing expertise and resources that could strengthen views among Chileans that the mining company should remain completely in state hands. Pinera and his government have floated the idea of selling part of Codelco to boost efficiency and cut costs. Private engineering firms and drillers have also had their 15 minutes of fame with around-the-clock television exposure.
  • Union leaders believe the San Jose accident helped boost the image of miners who were increasingly considered privileged employees with high wages and hefty bonuses, according to previous opinion polls. They said the Chilean public is now more aware of the dangers miners face in the workplace and why they should be paid more. Miners in Chile are some of the best paid in Latin America, with cash bonuses linked to new contracts that could reach over $25 000 per employee at larger companies. An improved image could help unions exert pressure on employers if upcoming wage negotiations turn ugly. Some of the world’s top copper mines, Collahuasi and Radomiro Tomic, are negotiating new contracts due later this year.

Losers

  • Chile mining regulators proved unprepared for the accident, which shocked the mining nation and prompted Pinera to fire the chief regulator. The accident unveiled the underbelly of an industry long thought to be safe for employees. Pinera has introduced legislation to revamp the regulator, increasing their budget across the mineral-rich Atacama desert.
  • Small- and medium-sized mines have felt the fallout of the accident as the government moved rapidly to close dozens of tiny deposits across the country over safety conditions. Investors in those mines accuse the government of carrying out a witch hunt to cover up previous shortcomings that led to the San Jose deposit accident. Although production from those mines is likely to decline, it is very unlikely it could hurt world supply as the bulk of production is done by larger companies that spend big to comply with international safety standards. Authorities could face lawsuits by the miners and their relatives for failing to properly inspect the mine and avoid the cave-in that trapped the men underground.
  • The mine’s owners, local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, are blamed by the public, miners and many officials for the accident. The firm is currently undergoing an internal audit of its assets and debt to determine if it should declare bankruptcy. The mine, which is more than 100 years old, had a long history of accidents that killed and seriously injured many miners in recent years. Feeble wooden planks were used to reinforce the walls of the deposit instead of sturdier steel columns. It also took the mine owners hours to inform authorities about the accident, saying they first had to evaluate the situation. Miners’ relatives have already filed suit against the company, asking for a total of around $10-million while local prosecutors are mulling criminal charges against the owners.
  • – Reuters, AFP

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