'Los 33' still riding whirlwind of the Chile mine rescue – but calm nearing
For the first time in weeks, the Chile miners formerly trapped underground are not in the news. And that's good news for the men who want their lives to return to normal.
Valparaiso, Chile — For the first time since the rescue of 33 miners trapped in the belly of Chile's Atacama Desert, the men are out of sight and absent from the news. It might be the first sign their lives are starting to slow down after a whirlwind two weeks.
Since being freed, the formerly trapped miners have received honors seemingly nonstop. So busy was their schedule that they chartered buses to keep them on pace.
"Los 33" spent Tuesday in Valparaiso, home of Chile's legislature, receiving medals and applause from lawmakers. A day earlier, they were in Santiago, shaking hands with the president and playing soccer against government officials at the national stadium. The miners lost the match, 2-3.
The circuit of tributes and press requests have become part of the everyday life for these miners since they were rescued Oct. 12 and 13. Some have received paid trips to Spain and many have received handsome payments for interviews. It will probably be another week before things settle down, says Juan Illanes – and he is far from the most famous of the miners.
"It's something that has to be done," Mr. Illanes said Tuesday outside the Chamber of Deputies, as Chile's lower house is known, smiling under his neatly trimmed mustache. In a suit and wire-rimmed glasses, he looked more like a lawyer than a hard-rock miner who just two weeks ago was stuck in a tunnel 2,000 feet underground.
Call to keep all miners safe
After breakfast with the president of the chamber, he and the other miners sat in the audience gallery and listened to more than an hour of speeches lauding the men's stoic heroism in the face of hardship. Speakers were interrupted with applause from the miners and their families when they accused the mine's owners of negligence, swore that mine safety would be improved, and promised to ensure fair treatment not only of the 33, but also of their coworkers who are now unemployed.
Mario Sepulveda, who acted as the group's unofficial spokesman in the mine, has been the group's most manic public face. He turned into a cheerleader on the day of the rescue, riling up President Sebastian Piñera and other high-level officials in a fist-pumping chant. He later ripped off his clothes and ran into the sea during an ABC television interview.
But at the parliament Tuesday, Mr. Sepulveda also called on the public to ensure that the honors don't go only to the 33 men who were trapped. "There were 350 other workers whose dreams were buried in that mine," he said, referring to the people who have been laid off by the mine's owner since the collapse.
Through an Oakley lens
Along with the political meetings, the miners have been feted by religious leaders, both Catholic and evangelical. At a service at the Evangelical Cathedral in Santiago Sunday, miner José Henríquez said the only hero of the rescue "was named Jesus."
The group has been traveling together in a bus, with another pair of buses for family members and friends. Many of the miners continue to wear the famously expensive Oakley sunglasses, given to protect their vision upon exiting the mine's clammy darkness. During the lengthy, generally impersonal speeches at the legislature yesterday, eight of them had their sunglasses on their foreheads while two had them over their eyes.
While everyone is happy to get a photo taken with the miners, it has been harder to get people to commit to policy changes.
"We want there to be a before and an after in safety matters," President Piñera said Aug. 23, after the miners were found alive. He created a commission that is supposed to turn in proposals by Nov. 22 to improve safety not only in mines but also in all workplaces in the country.
But when Mining Minister Laurence Golborne presented a new budget to the legislature this week, it didn't include any increase in funds for the mining regulator, says Ramon Farias, an opposition deputy.