October 17, 2010 / 4:02 AM / 7 years ago

Chile's rescued miners close ordeal with ceremony

<p>Rescued Chilean miner Alex Vega kisses his wife as he arrives at the San Jose mine after being trapped underground for 69 days, in Copiapo October 17, 2010.Carlos Vera</p>

COPIAPO, Chile (Reuters) - Thirteen of Chile's 33 rescued miners returned on Sunday to the mine that nearly became their tomb and thanked God for their freedom in an emotional religious service.

The miners, their families and friends attended a ceremony led by Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy at the mouth of the San Jose gold and copper mine from which they were hoisted to freedom on Wednesday in a flawless rescue operation watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The private service was held in the area known as "Camp Hope," the tent city where family members gathered to pray and await news about their husbands, sons and fathers trapped for 69 days at 2,050 feet underground.

"It was inspiring," 52-year-old Juan Illanes, described by many as the group's spokesman, said after the ceremony as miners' relatives dismantled the tents that became their homes during the ordeal.

"Seeing this camp I feel I've had incredible support," he added. "It gives you strength."

As the miners sang hymns inside a cordoned-off tent, some of their co-workers who were not caught in the cave-in protested, blowing horns and holding up banners to demand that the mine's owners compensate them for the jobs they have lost.

"We are not 33, we are 300," read one placard. "Trapped on the surface," said another.

After the ceremony, Mario Gomez, who at 63 is the oldest of the 33 men, helped his family pack up their tent and voiced support for his out-of-work colleagues.

"We always had faith that we were going to get out. Now it is time to rest," he said.

The service was closed to the press. During the ceremony, participants could be heard clapping loudly and singing Chile's national anthem.

So far, the miners have not revealed many of the details about what it was like after the cave-in left them huddled together in a dark, damp cavern. Some have said they are saving their stories for a book.

Gomez's daughter said he has not talked about the worst moments and the family has not pressed him to open up.

<p>Rescued Chilean miner Carlos Mamani (front L) receives the sacraments as he attends a mass at the San Jose mine near Copiapo October 17, 2010.Stringer</p>

"I want to know everything," Romina Gomez, 20, told Reuters. "But we don't want to ask him."


A poll published on Sunday by La Tercera newspaper said 84 percent of Chileans approved of the handling of the mine crisis by President Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire businessman who took office in March.

The conservative leader visited the mine several times during the two months the workers were trapped and personally oversaw the 23-hour rescue operation during which they were hoisted one by one to the surface.

Slideshow (26 Images)

His overall popularity was 62 percent, according to La Tercera's poll, conducted late last week. Surveys taken before the rescue had placed Pinera's popularity in the 50s.

Basking in the glow of the successful rescue, Pinera took some rock from the mine on a European tour. He will meet Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace on Monday and hold talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

"I am bringing him a piece of rock from the mine, so he will keep it in Downing Street as a tribute to courage, faith and hope," Pinera told reporters in London.

When the mine caved in, the men were thought to have died in yet another of Latin America's litany of mining accidents. Rescuers found them two and a half weeks later with a bore hole the width of a grapefruit.

That tiny hole became an umbilical cord used to pass down hydration gels, water and food to keep them alive. A bigger shaft was later drilled to extract them.

The miners were hauled out on Wednesday in a metal capsule a little wider than a man's shoulders and dubbed "Phoenix" after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes. The government said it would send one of the capsules to Expo Shanghai.

"The happiest moment I had was when I came out and saw the sun," said Omar Reygada, 56, who lived through two other serious mining accidents.

Gomez returned to the surface with some advice for his grandchildren. "Never go into a mine," he said on local television. "Study a profession."

With reporting by Simon Gardner and Esteban Medel in Copiapo, Antonio de la Jara, Fabian Cambero and Brad Haynes in Santiago; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Simon Gardner; Editing by Stacey Joyce

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