The Year in Review: Miner miracle in Chile

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The Independent US

The San Jose gold and copper mine is perched on a rocky and barren hillside in the middle of Chile's Atacama Desert, which sits roughly 400 miles north of Santiago and is officially the driest place on earth. For roughly 48 hours in early October, this remote and inhospitable spot became the focus of the entire world.

Cheered by a joyous crowd, and chronicled by television crews perched on rickety platforms in an impromptu tent village which became known as Camp Hope, a group of 33 miners now known across the world as "Los 33" were lifted to freedom, one by one, up a tiny shaft from the cavern where they had been trapped by a rock-fall 69 days earlier.

Their escape marked a triumph of human endurance which had seen them survive for the first 15 days of their ordeal on two spoons of tuna, a biscuit and a couple of sips of milk every 48 hours. After a drill manned by rescue workers located them in a tunnel half a mile underground, the men were kept alive for almost two months with rations shipped down tubes nine centimetres wide.

It was a privilege, as freezing night gave way to a sunny day, to watch these men being carried to the surface in a metal cage called The Phoenix, which had been painted in Chile's national colours. And it was a rare pleasure to witness them each emerging into the fresh air they surely thought they would never breathe again.

Some of the men prayed, others cried. Most hugged their wives and shook hands with the man in charge of the operation, Chile's cucumber-cool mining minister, Laurence Golborne, who had spent weeks comforting families and playing his guitar round their campfires.

A few of the miners added to the sense of drama, as if it were necessary, with personal flourishes. "Franklin Lobos, a former footballer with Chile's national team, played keepy-uppy. Claudio Yanez, who had become engaged while underground, kissed his fiancée so hard that her hat fell off. "Super" Mario Sepulveda stepped out of the cage and handed a bag full of rocks to his rescuers, "souvenirs" from his trip. He hugged his wife and asked: "How's the dog?"

The spectacle might have been designed for the superlative-laden arena of rolling news. Yet, unlike so many ordinary Joes who achieve fame through that medium, "Los 33" appear to have coped admirably with instant celebrity. Time will tell whether wider good will come from the miracle of San Jose. Already, the disaster has seen regulations tightened by the mineral-rich nation's government, who in a refreshing move all politicians could learn from, took ownership of the crisis.

Time will also tell whether the mining industry can ever really guarantee the safety of its galley slaves. As 2010 petered out, news came that 29 men had been trapped by an explosion at a coal mine in New Zealand. Days later all were declared dead, providing a sobering reminder that not every story ends happily for those who work deep underground catering for mankind's never-ending appetite for consumption.