Chile: Chileans reveled Thursday in the stunning glory and jubilation of a record-setting mine rescue. As the celebration fades, however, several key questions await resolution.
Officials at the copper and gold mine whose collapse trapped the 33 men for more than two months still have to answer why it was allowed to operate at all.
Attention will also focus in coming days on the rescued miners themselves, their emotional scars must be tended — and, eventually, it remains to be seen how many will want to return the underground profession that nearly killed them.
President Sebastian Pinera seemed unequivocal after Wednesday`s rescue about the fate of the San Jose mine. "This mine will definitely never open again," he said after a dizzying day in which the miners were pulled up through a narrow escape chute from nearly a half-mile down in under 23 hours — far less than originally forecast.
Pinera also said the conditions that allowed the accident "will not go unpunished. Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility."
Pinera said the rescue would end up costing "somewhere between $10 (million) and $20 million," a third covered by private donations with the rest coming from state-owned Codelco — the country`s largest company_ and the government itself. Mining accounts for 40 percent of the Chilean state`s earnings and the rescue`s details were run by its operations manager, Andre Sougarett.
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 violated safety codes. The families of 27 of the 33 rescued miners have sued its owners for negligence and compensatory damages.
Also suing the San Esteban company is Gino Cortez, a 40-year-old miner who lost his left leg from the knee down a month before the accident as he was leaving the mine after his shift and a rock fell on him. He contends he was hurt because the mine was short on the metallic screens that protect miners from such collapses.
Pinera said he would in the coming days be offering a new proposal for better protecting Chilean workers. After the collapse, he fired top regulators and created a commission to investigate both the accident and the industry`s Sernageomin regulatory agency. 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 ascent to a joyous celebration. Pinera, eyes moist with emotion, told him: "You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration."
No one is known to have survived as long trapped underground. For the first 17 days, no one even knew whether the men were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was captivated by their endurance and unity.
With hardhats held to their hearts, the pair 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.
"Chile today is more united and stronger than ever and I think that Chile is today a country more respected and more esteemed by the world," Pinera said after chatting with Urzua on live TV about how the men endured.
The rescue exceeded expectations every step of the way. Initially, officials said it might 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 as the day wore on 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.
Once rescued, the miners were taken to a hospital in Copiapo for observation. Initially, officials said all would be there a full 48 hours after emerging from the mine. But Health Minister Jaime Manalich said some would probably be able to leave Thursday. First lady Cecilia Morel confirmed.
"They are being kept more as a preventative measure than to treat anything," she said. Better to be in the hospital "than at home where they could be given meat and fried pork rinds," she said. All but a few of the men emerged in very good health, officials said.
Manalich said many had been unable to sleep, wanted to talk with families and were anxious. One was treated for pneumonia, and two needed dental work.
But it became clear that they also faced emotional challenges from their ordeal.
Dr. Guillermo Swett said miner Jimmy Sanchez, at 19, the youngest of the group and the father of a 4-month-old baby, appeared to be having a hard time adjusting and seemed depressed.
"He spoke very little and didn`t seem to connect," Swett said. 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.
Pinera said he would visit all of them in the hospital Thursday and then host them at the government palace in Santiago, the capital. 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."