Victory tour for Chilean miners kicks off with presidential visit to UK

While the freed workers readjust to life above ground, their nation's leader is making a timely call on David Cameron and the Queen.
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The Independent US

Most people who enter Downing Street bearing a lump of rock find themselves at Horseferry Road Magistrates' Court the next day. But tomorrow, there will be a much-feted exception. President Sebastian Piñera of Chile will glide past the security cordon, enter No 10, and present David Cameron with a souvenir piece of diorite from the depths of San José mine, the 800m-deep catacomb which has transformed his country's reputation.

Few official visits have been better timed. Until last week, Chile was, for all but the world's industrial copper consumers, a relatively minor wine producer and exotic holiday location. But on Monday, President Piñera will meet the Prime Minister and the Queen as the man who represents the most uplifting human achievement of recent years.

As he does so, a waiting world's press (and large quantities of their readers) are hoping that very soon the 33 rescued miners will agree to talk publicly about their 69-day entombment and stirring rescue. The moment may come today when many of them plan to return to the mine for a ceremony to mark their ordeal. But the men have always insisted, with the same degree of solidarity as they showed underground, that they would talk collectively – or not at all.

Some are now saying that there are parts of their story which they are not prepared to share. "We are not going to talk about that," said 63-year-old Mario Gomez, the oldest of the workers stuck for more than two months in a northern Chilean copper and gold mine, when asked about the nightmare experience. "That's reserved," was the answer to the same question from Ariel Ticona, 29. Whether this is due to the natural reserve of the working man, or the imminence of book, film and TV deals, is not clear.

Rescued miner Victor Segovia took notes which could become the basis for a book about the experience. "We are going to publish a book," Mr Ticona said. "We have an outline with 33 chapters based on the log that Victor kept. We are going to see about that later. Victor wrote every day." The author himself said: "Writing the book was what saved my life in the mine." He admitted he was so nervous at the moment of his rescue that he forgot the notebook down below and had to ask one of his companions to bring it up later. The celebrated notebook in question – red and somewhat tattered – was pictured in the local newspaper La Tercera yesterday. Parts of it have been taped closed to ensure secrecy, for now.

Most reports suggest that the men continue to bear up well. All but two – one being treated for dental problems, another for respiratory complications – have left hospital, although Chile's health minister, Jaime Manalich, hinted that others may be experiencing less tangible difficulties. He said: "They are beginning to dream about the mine. Some wake in the night to do their chores exactly at the hour that their shift began."

Not all, however. Some of the miners insist that they plan to remain in their jobs. Alex Vega, the 10th miner pulled out of the mine, said yesterday: "I want to go back ... I'm a miner at heart. It's something in your blood." This Stakhanovite response is despite the money these men could make from media deals, plus the jobs and gifts on offer to them.

President Piñera, who landed in Britain yesterday afternoon, will be looking forward to a rescue dividend for his whole country. The Harvard-educated businessman turned politician said that he hoped British entrepreneurs would invest more in the country. On Monday he will meet Lord Mayor Locum Tenens Lord Levene for a private lunch before heading to Downing Street. The audience with the Queen will follow his meeting with the Prime Minister. Today he visits the British Museum and the Churchill War Rooms. He moves on to France and Germany later in the week. He may not be the only star of the rescue to go on tour. There is talk of the Fenix 2 (Phoenix) capsule in which the miners were brought to the surface being taken on a victory lap of the planet.

... it’s business as usual in a dangerous industry

Just three days after the last of the Chilean miners was rescued, normal service was resumed in the world's most hazardous mines.

In China, 21 men died and 16 are still trapped after an explosion at a coalmine. In Ecuador, two men died and two remain missing after the collapse of a tunnel at a goldmine. And in Colombia, two men died in a blast at one mine, and, at another, two coal miners have been trapped for four days. It is not yet known if any of the trapped miners are alive, or the extent of their injuries, if any.

At the scene of the Chinese explosion, at the state-run Pingyu Coal & Electric Company's mine in Henan Province, 430 miles south of Beijing, 70 staff are trying to establish contact with the 16 survivors. The trapped men as well as their rescuers face dangerous levels of gas and the risk of falling coal.

China's state-run media had joined the global coverage of the Chilean mine rescue, and the country's propaganda and mine officials will be under unfamiliar pressure to be just as open about the progress of their rescue efforts. China's mining industry is the most dangerous in the world – with 2,600 people killed in accidents in 2009 – and the country's leaders have been making a high-profile push in recent years to improve mine safety. The Premier, Wen Jiabao, has even ordered mining bosses into the mines with their workers or else risk severe punishment.

China had its own remarkable mine rescue earlier this year, when 115 miners were pulled from a flooded mine in the northern province of Shanxi after more than a week underground eating sawdust, tree bark, paper and even coal. Some strapped themselves to the walls of the shafts with their belts to avoid drowning while they slept.

The 50-strong rescue team in Ecuador will be aware of similar invidious comparisons. Some of them are now digging out the main tunnel, while others are preparing to dig a hole from the side to reach the gallery where the missing miners may be trapped.