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 625 metres 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 two-amd-a-half 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.
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.
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.
Relatives of Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani react to his rescue in Copiapo. (Reuters)
President Sebastián Piñera, 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 and hope this never happens again,” the last miner out, Luis Urzua, 54, 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.
United States 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 Manuel Gonzalez, the last rescuer to emerge after the operation. “I hope this never happens again.”
Timeline — the trapped Chilean miners’ two-month ordeal
August 5 — A cave-in leaves 33 miners trapped about 625m vertically underground in a small copper-and-gold mine near the northern Chilean city of Copiapo, 800km north of Santiago.
The mine’s owner, local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, notifies authorities several hours later, saying they first had to evaluate the situation.
August 6 — Mining Minister Laurence Golborne cuts short a visit to Ecuador and flies back to Chile to lead the rescue effort in Copiapo. Mine authorities pin their hopes on the possibility the trapped miners have reached a shelter where oxygen, water and food had been stored.
August 7 — Rescue workers, who began descending toward the shelter via a ventilation shaft on August 6, are forced to abandon that route when a fresh cave-in blocks the duct.
President Piñera cuts short his visit to Colombia and returns to Chile to be with family members of the trapped miners at a temporary camp set up outside the mine.
August 8 — Rescue workers begin drilling bore-holes 12 cm in diameter into the mine to try to locate the miners.
August 11 — Piñera sacks the head of national mining regulator Sernageomin, and vows a major overhaul of the body, which monitors mine safety.
August 19 — The farthest-along drill reaches the level in the mine where authorities presumed the miners to be, but does not hit the shelter or encounter any signs of the miners.
August 22 — Early in the day, a drill reaches a depth of 688m and rescue workers hear tapping on the drill. Early in the afternoon, Piñera announces the miners had tied a note to the drill that said: “The 33 of us in the shelter are well.”
Hours later, rescue workers capture the first video images of the miners, showing them to be in much better condition than expected.
Golborne and Andre Sougarret, head of the rescue drilling operation, say rescue of the miners will take three to four months, given the instability of the mine and the time needed to drill a new hole, about 66cm in diameter, to extract them.
August 23 — Food, water and medicine are lowered to the miners, who were running low on supplies found in the rescue chamber.
September 17 — A rescue drill reaches the miners. The small hole is widened over the next month to prepare for their evacuation.
October 4 — Golborne says the miners could be rescued in the second half of October. The men have started to prepare for their trip home by sending back to the surface gifts like soccer jerseys signed by Pele and rosaries blessed by the Pope.
October 8 — Golborne says a rescue shaft could reach the miners as early as that day and evacuation of the miners could begin the next week.
October 9 — Rescue workers finish drilling an escape shaft about 625m long to a slightly higher part of the tunnel, triggering jubilant celebrations. The government says the men will be evacuated within days.
October 11 — Rescue workers finish reinforcing the escape shaft with metal tubes to avoid any last-minute disaster and successfully test one of the evacuation capsules. The government says it will start to raise the men to the surface on Tuesday night.
October 13 — All 33 trapped miners are pulled to safety after two months underground in an extraordinary rescue operation watched live on television by millions around the world. — Reuters