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As rescue nears, trapped Chilean miners prepare to deal with media spotlight

By Jonathan Franklin
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 10:48 PM

IN SANTIAGO, CHILE The 33 men who have been trapped in a Chilean mine for the past six weeks are preparing for a new odyssey: confronting sudden celebrity.

With three holes being carved into the mountainside, rescuers appear increasingly optimistic that the miners will be freed in a month in what is expected to be a highly publicized event. After weeks of isolation, officials say, the men will soon be mobbed by the media, courted by Hollywood and stalked by paparazzi.

Psychologists and rescue workers are rushing to teach the men how best to handle their foray into the fame machine. The miners will be taught how to deal with reporters as well as the basics of opening a bank account and personal financial management.

"Many of these guys have very limited and informal education," said Jorge Diaz, a member of the rescue team, who described the men as "well prepared" for the world of mining but not as ready for the fame awaiting them.

One of the miners, foreman Luis Urzua, "has technical training and we won't be teaching him how to open a bank account," Diaz said, "but the rest of the group?"

A half-dozen documentaries are in production - including the Discovery Channel's look at the mechanics of the rescue and a planned HBO program. Tabloids are reaching out to families, offering thousands of dollars for the first interview, and hotels in the usually sleepy mining town of Copiapo are full.

Alberto Iturra, the lead psychologist for the miners, and Alejandro Pino, a former radio journalist, will train the men trapped at the San Jose mine via closed-circuit TV. They will be taught to remain poised during interviews, to ask the interviewer to repeat the question if they don't understand it, "and how to say that they prefer not to answer," said Iturra, who has counseled the men for weeks.

Experts working with the miners say it will be difficult to shield them from the media onslaught after their release - now estimated for mid-October.

One of the miners, Mario Sepulvedra, who narrated a video from below, "is going to have a huge opportunity in TV. . . . Obviously there is going to be huge interest in working with him," Diaz said.

Sepulvedra wowed an international audience with his relaxed, informative and dramatic narration of an underground video in which the miners showcased with pride their precarious world.

The media attention at the mine is influencing the rescue operation: A "media platform" half the size of a football field has been built at the scene to accommodate the estimated 500 to 1,000 reporters expected to flood the usually abandoned corner of the Atacama Desert.

The rescue effort involves strapping the men inside a torpedo-shaped capsule - dubbed the Phoenix - and winching them one by one up a 700-meter shaft. The miners will then be flown by helicopter to a nearby military base.

The miners' survival is in little doubt. They receive food and water regularly, and handwritten messages from their families and friends via a tube that carries pods known as "palomas," or pigeons. A second tube delivers enriched oxygen, and a third is used for videoconferencing.

A debate has erupted over whether the men should be taken to a private clinic where they will be sheltered from the media - a plan psychologists support - and the Chilean government's desire to put them in a public clinic for three or four days to showcase the country's much maligned public health system.

Despite efforts to diversify exports, Chile is still a mining nation with more than 50 percent of its exports related to copper. Chilean miners are such an integral part of the nation that many people refer to copper as "The Nation's Salary."

The Chilean state-run company Codelco and international companies such as Anglo American run world-class mining operations in the desert here. But smaller operations such as the San Jose mine often operate on the edge of legality. Several fatal accidents have occurred at the mine, which the Chilean mine safety commission has temporarily shut down numerous times. President Sebastian Pinera was led to fire the head of the national mine safety inspection unit.

But the life of miners, shielded from view, hidden deep underground, has moved into the national consciousness only with the crisis at the San Jose mine. Now, Chileans seem interested in every facet of this unknown world - from the daily dangers to mundane routine of this subculture.

"Once these miners get out, they will have a high level of fame in their country and will face huge pressure from society and the media," said Michael Duncan, deputy chief medical officer at Johnston Space Center in Houston, who is advising the government on the rescue operations. "Our experience and that of others shows that the work just begins when the miners get out of the mine."

Franklin is a freelance writer based in Santiago.

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