Rescued Chile miners recover, face celebrity status
OPIAPO, Chile (Reuters) - 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 in surprisingly good health considering that they had been stuck in a wet, hot, collapsed mine tunnel since Aug. 5.
The men were resting in a hospital after being hoisted to the surface in a rescue operation watched by hundreds of millions worldwide. One of the miners had pneumonia and was being treated with antibiotics.
In a complicated but flawless operation under the South American nation's far northern Atacama desert, the miners were hauled out one-by-one through 2,050 feet (625 meters) of rock in a metal capsule little wider than a man's shoulders.
With much of the world transfixed by the rescue, celebrations erupted in Chile. The miners set a world record for survival underground and were welcomed as national heroes.
It took less than 22 hours from the time the first miner was brought to the surface until the last one was pulled to freedom late on Wednesday. About 2-1/2 hours later, the last of six rescuers who had gone down the shaft to help the miners get out also emerged from the gold and copper mine, and the operation was complete.
"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 danced into the early hours, cheering and waving red, white and blue Chilean flags.
"We hope that some of them, two or three, can be released this afternoon," said Jorge Montes, an official at the hospital in Copiapo, where the miners were being treated and where President Sebastian Pinera visited them on Thursday.
"They've been in a situation of stress for two months ... Nonetheless, most of them are coming along perfectly well," Montes said. Families were being allowed to visit in shifts.
Still wearing dark glasses to protect their eyes from glare after being trapped so long in near darkness, the miners received an invitation from Pinera to visit the presidential palace toward the end of the month.
Pinera, a soccer fan who also plays the game, challenged the miners to a match against a team made up of his cabinet.
"The team that wins will stay in La Moneda (presidential palace). The team that loses goes back to the mine," he joked.
Despite the suffering they went through, and the emotional stress some will still face, the previously unknown miners could now have plenty to look forward to if they 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, advertising deals, and book and film contracts coming their way.
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 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.
When the mine caved in on Aug. 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 is a crucial part of the Chilean economy and has played a central but often sad role in Latin America since the Spanish conquistadors' first hunt for gold.
For centuries, mine 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 a model of economic stability and an investors' favorite in Latin America.
(Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara, Fabian Cambero, Brad Haynes and Hugh Bronstein in Santiago; Juana Casas in Copiapo and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Simon Gardner and Jackie Frank)
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