Santiago: Miners who were trapped underground for over two months led Chile on Friday in marking the first anniversary of the start of their remarkable ordeal, which has scarred many of them forever.
Friday`s religious ceremony in northern Chile was a moving reunion for the men who endured a survival story that began on August 05, 2010, when a cave-in trapped 33 miners deep inside the San Jose mine in northern Chile`s Atacama Desert.
For the next two months, the world`s attention was riveted on them and their battle to survive against the odds, until their rescue on October 14, when they were hauled back to the surface one by one in a complex operation.
The anniversary ceremony, attended by 27 of the 33 miners, was organised by the men as a gesture of gratitude for their successful rescue, and many of the workers who saved the miners attended.
"We are the survivors of a catastrophe. Thanks to their efforts, there are not 33 crosses planted in the desert today," said Luis Urzua, who was the shift leader of the miners and who organised the event.
All of the trapped miners were brought to safety in a feat of engineering 69 days after the mine shaft caved in.
"Thanks for not forgetting, not losing hope, for fighting to get us back to our families, for giving us the encouragement to hang on. Because of you we can say that `All 33 of us are well inside the shelter’," the miners wrote on a photograph distributed at the ceremony, referencing a now-famous message sent during the ordeal.
President Sebastian Pinera was among many of those involved in the rescue who attended the ceremony. Even Rolly the clown, a former miner who entertained the children and grandchildren of the miners while their relatives kept up a long vigil outside the mine, joined the celebrations.
Public Works Minister Laurence Golborne, who was new to office at the time of the crisis, spearheaded efforts to save the miners in his then-post as mining minister.
Pinera and Golborne greeted each miner and his family individually, amid a flurry of hugs and kisses.
"I`ve very excited and very happy to be reunited with so many people we worked with so long and who suffered so much, we had sorrow and then we had great joy," Golborne said.
"It`s nice to be back and remember a moment that was so beautiful and so tragic at the same time, but that ended so well."
The event was briefly disrupted when two women were arrested after denouncing Chilean public education policy, the focus of massive student demonstrations across Chile over the past two months.
Three other protesters were arrested as the celebrations came to a close.
Four of the miners could not attend due to flight connection problems from the United States, and two others decided against attending.
Most of the men wore suits and ties, but only a few of them said they were having a good year after their ordeal ended last October.
Former miners Dario Segovia and Osman Araya developed a shared business selling fruit and vegetables at a market.
Luis Urzua, the last man pulled out of the mine, now dedicates his time to giving public lectures. He is also the spokesman for the group and is coordinating a film project to produce a film about their story.
But most of the men spoke of the extreme hardships they faced since the cave-in last August.
Seven miners remain on medical leave and most have no steady work.
Jimmy Sanchez said he was better off inside the mine, and now he is overwhelmed by memories of long days of confinement.
Jose Ojeda is unemployed but says he is slowly starting to resume mining work after receiving psychological treatment.
It was Ojeda`s message, sent to the surface through a drill on August 22, that first informed the world the miners were still alive.
The written note, which Pinera had kept since the rescue, was returned to Ojeda on Friday at the close of the ceremony.
Ojeda said he will donate the message to the Atacama Regional Museum.
Separately, a 14-day long strike at the world`s largest copper mine, Escondida in northern Chile, ended when workers and owners struck a deal on salaries as well as bonuses for exceptional 2010 production.