Rescue Of 33 Trapped Miners Transforms Chile

Rescue operations at the San Jose Mine in northern Chile were a success. The 33 men stuck half a mile underground for more than two months were all brought to the earth's surface in apparently good health. The world watched as the nation celebrated.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

When the last miner emerged last night, from what could have been an underground tomb, the saga of the 33 Chilean miners became one of the greatest rescue stories ever told. As the miners' leader, Luis Urzura, put it, We have done what the entire world was waiting for.

Cheers, bells, horns, Chilean flags waving in the desert for miners who survived, basically healthy. Annie Murphy was at the San Jose Mine for the rescue and has these thoughts this morning.

ANNIE MURPHY: The story of the Chilean miners developed out of nowhere. As did Camp Hope, the place where their families have kept vigil for over two months. It went from an empty, isolated stretch of ground, some hopeful families and a handful of journalists heating dented kettles over campfires and wondering how this would all turn out; to a dusty, bleached out settlement. There was a flood relatives and close friends, hundreds of tents, campers, and shelters, volunteers, world-class rescuers, thousands of journalists from all over the globe.

Then, finally, Florencio Avalos, the first miner out, emerged near midnight on Tuesday, in a narrow metal cage that had been named The Phoenix.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

The rest of the men followed with startling speed, all of them above ground in the course of about 24 hours. And now the rest of Chile and much of the world, is pondering just what this all means. Berta Gomez works for the Red Cross and acted as a counselor to family members in Camp Hope.

Ms. BERTA GOMEZ (Red Cross): (Spanish language spoken)

MURPHY: I think it gets at what it means to be Chilean, she says, to be brotherly. We Chileans are that way. We just have a lot of solidarity, she says. We're always right beside whoever is suffering.

(Soundbite of singing)

President Sebastian Pinera was also, naturally, singing Chile's praises after the last miner arrived above ground.

President SEBASTIAN PINERA (Chile): (Spanish language spoken)

MURPHY: He says, I want to say that we did this the Chilean way, and that means that we did this well. And he says that now Chile is a more respected and valued country all over the world.

It's striking just how quickly this story was turned around. When the accident occurred, President Pinera was faced with a PR nightmare. Chile, respected for its copper mines, with 33 men suddenly trapped inside one.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Yet, Chile somehow turned this into a show that had the world rapt, watching in wonder as rescuers pulled off a task many believed was impossible. President Pinera often told the public that this was a chance to show the world Chile can do things well.

But there's still the question of just what is to come next for these men and who is going to be held responsible for an accident that nearly killed them.

Accidents happen regularly all over this desolate desert, where, below the sand, lies great mineral wealth. Patricia Lobos is the niece of miner Franklin Lobos. Her husband works in the mine industry and she lives in a mining settlement, not far from the San Jose Mine.

Ms. PATRICIA LOBOS: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: There's a lot of injustice here, in terms of salaries, she says. How much people are exploited. This is something we see here because we're Chileans, and when presidents go and make speeches, sure the country is more developed, she says, but they only paint the nice part. The truth is, reality is different.

Chile has lived up to its president's words, showing it can indeed do things well. But, a stellar rescue doesn't erase the errors of the past or the problems that still exist.

Hopefully, the world will use some of the attention it gave the sensational rescue to see what happens to these men as they adjust to being back above ground. And what the Chilean government does to change the mining industry that made such a catastrophe possible in the first place.�

For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy.

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