It’s rare that courage and solidarity can deliver such a gripping drama with a happy end to boot: The Chilean Miracle has moved the world.
And the South American country is celebrating: Chileans are proud of the 33 miners who withstood 69 days 700 metres under the Atacama Desert, and also of their government and rescue teams, who worked tirelessly to get the trapped workers out this week.
As the first miners were hoisted out of Earth’s depths late Tuesday, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera called it a “magical night” and “a night in which life defeated death.” “It is a night that we are going to remember all our lives,” he said.
An estimated 1 billion people around the world watched as the 24-hour rescue efforts were broadcast live, and most agreed.
After the last man emerged late Wednesday, Pinera noted that “Chile had reached into the heart of the world.” “I think we showed the best of us,” he said.
He described the miners’ ordeal as a lesson in hope and comradeship, and as proof that “this small and remote country” is “up for great things.” “It has been very exciting to hear words of admiration, emotion and gratitude. Presidents told me that they thanked us for the lesson we had taught them,” Pinera said late Wednesday.
The downside of the eye-popping admiration came from Mexico, where the widow of a Mexican miner said the Chilean rescue swamped her in “sadness” over how 63 Mexican miners were abandoned after five days in a 2006 tragedy and the Mexican president never once appeared at the disaster site.
In the Chilean case, Pinera has been a steady presence as the government persisted for 17 days with test bores to locate the men, and then with state-of-the art equipment to dig rescue shafts.
For weeks, the 33 miners lived in fear of being buried alive some 700 metres underground, living off of a small can of tuna and a little milk shared among all.
The story of the heroes from the depths, who neither gave up hope nor were left for dead and thus got a sort of second life, sounds like a fairytale. And it has moved even the toughest people.
Pinera, a billionaire businessman turned conservative politician, greeted every miner as they reached the surface in the Phoenix rescue capsule.
“Chile’s wealth lies not in its copper, Chile’s wealth lies in its miners,” he said.
The drama with a happy end was more than welcome in Chile’s bicentennial of independence from Spain after the year started badly, with a devastating quake and tsunami in February.
The rescue served to unite a country that is socially fragile, and to inspire a world after a year of other disasters such as the Haiti earthquake, with 230,000 dead, and Pakistan’s floods that devastated agriculture.
Pinera’s popularity benefited greatly from the happy end. So did that of Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, who was Mr. Nobody on August 5 and is now the best-loved politician in Chile. Some see him as Pinera’s likely successor.
What casts a shadow over the rescue is the lack of state control in liberal Chile over its powerful and productive mining industry.
Pinera has vowed to change that.
“Nobody can guarantee that an accident will never happen again, but we will guarantee that people don’t work in such unsafe and inhumane conditions as those in the San Jose mine,” he stressed Thursday, after visiting the recovering miners in hospital.
Pinera also vowed to seek a broader deal with the country’s workers.
The copper mine under the Atacama Desert has been closed, at least until it is considered safe again.
“The medium-sized private mines around here are all very similar, particularly regarding their danger,” said a relative of one of the trapped miners, who did not want to be mentioned by name.
“They rest on slender pillars, and the spaces between shafts are also too narrow,” he explained.
That way, of course, one gets more copper from the mountain, but there is also a risk of collapse, said the man, himself a miner.
The miners’ families are enjoying the “rebirth” of their loved husbands, brothers and sons, but they want to be left alone.
“I want to go home, I want privacy and no longer to be observed by hundreds of journalists,” said Maria Herrera, whose brother was trapped in the mine.