Millions watch rescue unfold in Chile

Thursday 14 October 2010 15.37
Luis Urzua & the president - Sing the national anthem
Luis Urzua & the president - Sing the national anthem

The spectacular rescue in the Atacama Desert was followed by millions – and up to an estimated 1bn people - around the world, many of them catching live updates on television or the internet.

In the day-long rescue operation in the South American nation, the miners were hauled out one-by-one through 625 metres of rock in a narrow, metal capsule.

Celebrations erupted in Chile and the miners, who set a world record for survival underground, were welcomed as national heroes.

'I have been with God and I've been with the devil', said Mario Sepulveda, the second miner to be pulled from the mine.

The 33 men were immediately taken to a field hospital at the mine for tests and most were said to be in decent health. They are now resting in hospital.

Many were said to have been unable to sleep last night, anxious and wanting to talk with families.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the healthiest could be discharged today.

Doctors said Mr Sepulveda and one other miner suffer from silicosis, an incurable, common miners' ailment in which lungs damaged from dust make breathing difficult.

Minister Manalich also said one unnamed miner was receiving 'intensive antibiotic treatment' for severe pneumonia and two would have to have surgery under general anesthesia for 'very serious' dental infections.

The miners have also been receiving gifts.

A local singer-turned-businessman has given them $10,000 each, while Apple boss Steve Jobs has sent them all a latest iPod.

A Greek firm has offered an islands tour, and football clubs Real Madrid and Manchester United have invited them to watch them play in Europe.

Yesterday was quite a day for the rescued miners. One became a father during his captivity. Another returned to the surface with a book draft. A third was met by his mistress while his wife stayed home.

They potentially face lucrative book and movie deals, however some of the men have already told relatives that they intend to head back underground.

Silvia Segovia yesterday said that she hoped her rescued brother Victor 'never returns' to the profession.

However, he told her: 'I am a miner, and I will die a miner', Silvia Segovia said.

Chile and its president's reputation

'Chile is not the same country that it was 69 days ago', President Sebastian Pinera yesterday said.

The president was there to greet and hug each of the miners as they were lifted to safety.

The last miner out, Luis Urzua, 54, told the president; 'I hand the shift over to you and hope this never happens again.'

Chile and its billionaire president, who is a credit card and airline magnate, have burnished their images with the flawlessly executed rescue.

'We are more respected' now, the 60-year-old said.

During the ten-week ordeal, the president fired the government's chief mining regulator, moved to strengthen safety laws and increased regulation of Chile's coal mines in the south to the mineral-rich Atacama desert in the north, where the ill-fated San Jose gold and copper mine is located.

He was also quick to reach out for world class experts to get involved in the operation, consulting US space agency NASA and drawing on the expertise of miners, geologists and drillers at Chile's state copper giant Codelco and beyond.

His handling of the crisis helped him push through a bill this week to raise royalties paid by mining companies in the world's top copper producer to help fund reconstruction after a devastating February earthquake in Chile.

As a result, his approval rating surged to a new high in August for his efforts to rescue the men when they were first located alive 17 days after the mine caved in.

Alberto Ramos, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, said the saga would have little impact in terms of pulling in new investment to Chile.

Chile is already an attractive market and the competence with which it handled the rescue underlines how well organised and efficient the country is, he added.

An 'inspiration'

The rescue prompted praise from many foreign leaders, including Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who called to congratulate Mr Pinera.

US President Barack Obama hailed the operation, saying: 'This rescue is a tribute not only to the determination of the rescue workers and the Chilean government but also the unity and resolve of the Chilean people who have inspired the world.'

Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, as well as Pope Benedict XVI and other dignitaries also sent their congratulations during the day.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the 'extraordinary triumph of human ingenuity and the strength of the human spirit.'

NASA, which provided advice on how to sustain the 33 men underground, applauded 'the courageous miners' and their rescuers.

Source: Reuters and AFP