COPIAPO, Chile (Reuters) - Chile’s rescued miners headed home as heroes on Friday after a 69-day ordeal deep underground during which they drank oil-contaminated water and set off explosives in a desperate bid to alert rescuers.
The first three of the 33 men were cleared to leave a hospital late on Thursday, returning to neighbors’ cheers a day after their stunning rescue from the collapsed mine in Chile’s remote northern desert. At least 10 more were set for release on Friday, their doctors said.
The miners have became global media stars since their widely watched rescue and have been showered with job offers and gifts, including invitations to visit the Greek isles and Graceland and attend European football matches.
In the working class Copiapo neighborhood of Til-Til Bajo, near the hospital, neighbors of rescued miners Pedro Cortes and Carlos Bugueno hung streamers and orange, pink and yellow flags from lampposts in anticipation of their arrival.
“I’ve known the boys since they were babies,” said shopkeeper Luis Castillo, 52. “when I heard they were alive I cried uncontrollably.”
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has challenged the men to a friendly soccer match later this month after the first wave of festivities.
“This is really incredible. It hasn’t sunk in,” said 52-year-old Juan Illanes, still wearing the dark sunglasses he and his fellow miners were given to protect their eyes after being stuck since August 5 in a dark cavern.
Edison Pena, 34, a triathlete who ran 6 miles a day through the mine’s tunnels to cope with stress after the collapse, said he didn’t expect to see his home again.
“I didn’t think I’d make it back, so this reception really blows my mind,” he said, as waiting neighbors showered him with confetti. “We really had a bad time.”
The men burned tires in the first days after the mine collapse, hoping the smoke would reach the surface and alert rescuers, and set off explosives in an effort to be heard.
When their reserves of bottled water dwindled to 10 liters, the men began drinking from metal drums of water tainted with motor oil.
Most of the men are surprisingly healthy considering they were stuck in a hot, dark tunnel for so long. One was being treated for pneumonia and others needed dental treatment, but none are suffering serious health problems.
Experts say the most lasting damage could be emotional and that recovery could be complicated by the public glare.
“In the mine, they were in their place,” said Alberto Iturra, psychologist for Chile’s workplace safety agency. “Now, everybody thinks they have a piece of them.”
Despite the trauma, some of the miners said they planned to remain in the profession.
Alex Vega, the 10th miner to be pulled out of the mine on Wednesday, said, “I want to go back ... I’m a miner at heart. It’s something in your blood,” Vega said.
The miners, who set a world record for survival underground, were hoisted to the surface in a metal capsule in a rescue operation that was watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide and triggered celebrations across Chile.
A local singer-turned-businessman has given each of them $10,000 each, while Apple boss Steve Jobs has sent all of them an iPod. There also is the prospect of book and film deals.
When the mine caved in, the men were believed to have died in yet another of Latin America’s litany of mining accidents. But rescuers found them 2-1/2 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 until a bigger shaft could be bored to bring them up.
In a complex but flawless operation under Chile’s Atacama desert, the miners were hauled out one by one through 2,050 feet of rock in a metal capsule little wider than a man’s shoulders and dubbed “Phoenix” after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes.
It took 24 hours to extract the miners and the six rescuers who had gone down the escape shaft to help get the men out.
A top government official said the rescue operation cost about $18 million and suggested the capsule — painted red, blue and white, like the Chilean flag — might also go on a world tour.
Additional reporting by Juana Casas in Copiapo, Antonio de la Jara, Fabian Cambero, Brad Haynes and Hugh Bronstein in Santiago; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Paul Simao and Jackie Frank