Chileans see mine rescue as a rebirth for the country

By Jonathan Franklin and Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 2:35 AM

SAN JOSE MINE, CHILE - They are trapped more than 2,000 feet under the earth, their only link to life above a narrow tube used for food and water. But the 33 miners whose saga has captivated the world for 67 days have received bottles of shampoo and were to get clean clothes.

As soon as midnight Tuesday, authorities here said, rescue crews could be ready to begin extricating them. And tough-bitten men such as Mario Gomez, 63, who once worried about surviving, are now concerned about how they will look as they emerge from the darkness.

"My father worried about his looks and likes to put on cologne and comb his hair back nicely," said Maria Jose Gomez, 17, who has been camping out on this moonscape in the northern Atacama desert. "He will be thinking about combing his hair. He only has, like, three hairs, but he worries about it."

Although viewers from as far away as Japan and Russia have been mesmerized by the drama, the remarkable story of survival has also consumed people in this dagger-shaped country on the southern fringe of South America.

Chileans have long fretted that aside from a dark dictatorship that ended in 1989, their country gets little attention. Theirs is a nation known in Latin America for a diverse economy and fruity wine. But Chileans are painfully aware that their country has not fielded world-class soccer teams or produced famous pop stars on the level of Colombia's Shakira.

So the tale of fortitude and grit at this gold and copper mine in this desolate stretch, and the ingenuity that has authorities gleeful about a dramatic rescue, has buoyed Chileans like nothing else.

"This has been very positive for the country, because in the world, no one knew Chile," said Belgica Ramirez, sister-in-law of Mario Gomez. "But now they know us. They know how we help each other."

Those who live in this harsh environment working as miners have put flags outside their homes and talked of a newfound solidarity. Their message on banners is as directed to the miners as it is to the outside world: "Show strength."

And President Sebastian Pinera, who has been a constant presence here, has said that the drama has revealed the noble nature of the Chilean soul. Pinera, speaking from Ecuador on Monday before returning to Chile for the rescue, said the operation represents a "true rebirth, not just for the 33 miners but also for the spirit of unity, strength, faith and hope they have shown our country and around the world."

The news was particularly rosy Monday, just two days after a drill had reached the miners in a hot cavity that had survived the Aug. 5 mine collapse. Rescuers reinforced the hole that had been excavated to reach the miners, placing a metal tubing 180 feet from the surface to prevent pieces of rock from breaking off.

They then tested Phoenix 1, a capsule designed by Chilean Navy engineers that will be used to pull up the miners, one by one. In the trial run, about 165 pounds of sand was loaded aboard, said Andre Souggaret, the rescue leader. He said the capsule did not spin or rock, leaving planners more optimistic about the speed of the operation.

Laurence Golborne, the mining minister, told reporters that the capsule, similar in some ways to an Olympic sled, was lowered to within 40 feet of where the miners are huddled.

"The results of the tests have been very promising, very positive," he said. "The capsule handles well inside the duct and adapts well both inside the metal tubes and the rock."

Officials at the mine said it would take the capsule about five minutes to reach the men and then about 10 minutes to be drawn back up. With time taken into account for possible problems, from the tube getting wedged to rocks falling down the 28-inch-diameter hole, the rescue is expected to take 12 to 24 hours.

Those planning the rescue want the first men out to be healthy and well prepared to handle any problems that could arise as the capsule makes its first trip up. The first man out might be Florencio Avalos, 33, who is healthy, experienced and relatively young, officials said.

The miners will be wearing sophisticated chest straps, supplied by Annapolis-based Zephyr Technology, that will monitor their heart rate and blood pressure. Doctors will be monitoring the data as the miners are pulled up.

"The biggest risk is probably fainting," said Jean Romagnoli, a doctor who has been monitoring the miners' health.

Romagnoli said another problem could be a panic attack, although that seems unlikely. "These guys don't get claustrophobia," he said. "They are used to working in small, confined spaces. Otherwise they wouldn't be miners."

That does not mean that there are no concerns.

On Monday, there was a distinct cracking sound inside the mine shaft, not unlike the sound icebergs make before sliding off a huge mass of ice.

Gomez's wife, Lilianett Gomez, said her emotions had changed dramatically - from desperation weeks ago to anxiety Monday. She said, though, that people here had shown that they have the strength to weather the crisis, and now the whole world knows it.

"God put these 33 miners together," she said. "It must have been for something, perhaps to send a message to the world."

Franklin is a special correspondent.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company