Chile Miners Enjoy Fame, Delay Return to Work

In this photo taken Oct. 13, 2010, rescued miner Daniel Herrera, 27, waves to the press as he arrives to the hospital of Copiapo, Chile. Herrera was the sixteenth of 33 miners who were rescued from the collapsed San Jose mine after more than 2 months trapped underground. Like the rest of the 33 miners, Herrera insists on keeping secret the details of those first 17 days trapped underground, holding to a pact made down below to preserve the material for a book or movie deal that they all would share evenly. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills
They're treated like rock stars today, offered book contracts, movie deals and all-expense-paid trips to see their favorite soccer teams in Europe, while demanding thousands of dollars for interviews.

A month after the remarkable end to their 69-day entrapment a half-mile deep in a collapsed gold and copper mine, Chile's 33 rescued miners are reveling in what they know may be just a brief burst of the good life. But when fame and money fade, and most go back to the mines, there is no guarantee that safety improvements promised after their ordeal will be delivered.

"Most of us thought we were dead," miner Daniel Herrera recalled in a conversation with The Associated Press. "I think that all of us now see our lives differently. We've got to live it."

Chile Mine Rescue: Complete Coverage

For the moment, that life is an exhilarating whirl of travel and attention.

The government of Israel has invited them to visit Jerusalem's holy sites. They've been offered trips to Greece, the Dominican Republic and Disney World.

Edison Pena became a star of the New York Marathon, and got to sing a little Elvis on David Letterman's show. The whole group is being flown to Los Angeles for CNN's "Heroes" program. Then it's on to England to watch football club Manchester United play Arsenal, courtesy of Chilean winemaker Concha y Toro, one of Manchester's sponsors.

But psychologists say it's important for the miners' mental health that they get back to a routine. For most, that means going back underground, rescued miner Omar Reygadas told the AP on Friday.

"Most of us have this desire to go back to the mines because we're miners, it's where we make a living. But we have to think hard now because after all this, we're still not OK," said Reygadas, who confessed to breaking down in tears both during their entrapment and since the rescue.

"If we go into the mine with fear, we can work. But if we work with fear, it's better not to go in at all," he said. "A fearful miner is accident-prone, and could injure someone else at any time. So it's better that we think about other work."

President Sebastian Pinera embraced the miners as they began reaching the surface on Oct. 13 and promised reforms so that never again would Chile allow "conditions so insecure and inhuman as those inside the San Jose mine."

But with copper prices soaring above $4 a pound to near historic highs this week, Chile's mines are attracting ever more people willing to risk their lives in unsafe situations.

Two men died using dynamite in an illegal copper mine Monday, not far from the mine in Chile's northern Atacama desert where the 33 were pulled safety.

Between 1990 and 2005, 742 miners died on the job in Chile, an average of 49 per year. So far this year, 38 have died. It's safer than factory work, which claims 400 lives each year, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told a congressional investigative commission this week, but "we need to go for zero as a moral imperative."

Chile is increasing its number of mining inspectors from 18 to 45 nationwide, with the goal of inspecting each mine at least once a year, Golborne said.

But there are still just 4 inspectors for as many as 2,500 mines in the Atacama region, despite all the global attention to the accident.

The successful rescue "doesn't mean that we're managing these things well," mining engineer Miguel Fortt told the AP. Chile urgently needs not only more inspectors, but better trained and more empowered ones, he said.

"In Chile, production takes a higher priority than safety," Nestor Jorquera, the National Miners Confederation president, told the AP.

Chile is the world's biggest copper producer, and its biggest mines, run by state-owned Codelco and multinational mining companies, have relatively low accident rates.

But far more numerous are mines like the San Jose, where an Aug. 5 collapse trapped the men below a 700,000-ton block of granite.

The marginal profit margins of smaller mines often lead to skimping on safety measures such as an escape route. After the collapse, the trapped miners discovered that the ladder in their escape shaft simply stopped after several hundred feet.

When they were discovered alive, Pinera told rescuers to use any resources they needed, and eventually spent more than $20 million on three simultaneous efforts to drill escape shafts. Some 300 people were mobilized to support the miners.

But a month after their rescue, wider industry changes remain far off.

Pinera created a commission to recommend safety reforms, but rejected its initial proposals. Congress won't begin to address changes until lawmakers return from summer vacations next March.

All 33 rescued miners are on an indefinite medical leave, receiving their salaries from the government while they ponder their future and try to figure out how to handle their many offers of trips, gifts and offers to buy their story.

They have insisted on keeping secret the details of those first 17 days, holding to a pact made down below to preserve the material for a book or movie deal that they all would share evenly.

They haven't yet signed a movie deal because they want to monitor the filming and make sure that it shows what really happened, Reygadas said. "We want it to show the truth," he said. And with the money, "we might be able to arrange a future."

So far, the miners have largely kept their promise of silence. Only a few have agreed to lengthy interviews, and most only for money. Those who talk generally offer only clues about what they suffered, the pain it caused their families and what they're doing now.

Reygadas said he suggested officials hire them as safety inspectors, and he was told the president would get the request.

"That's my idea — that they give us this opportunity. We have the knowledge."

Herrera, meanwhile, said he has no ideas for the future after the trips run out.

"I'm not making any long-term plans right now. I want to live day today," he said. "Now, you have to enjoy life, be more with your people, things that before you didn't do. I wasn't with my family much; I was out with friends. Now I prefer the family."

Still, he figures he'll return to the mines eventually.

"Yes, Yesss," he said. "My mother doesn't want it, but things are different. You have to work in life"

"I feel comfortable working in the mines."

More Chile Mine Coverage
Five of Chile's Rescued Miners See Wedding Bells
Chilean Miner Triumphs, Finishes NYC Marathon
Chilean Miner "Super Mario": Prankster, Leader
Chile Miners Go From World Fame to Humble Homes
With Mine Rescue, Chile Sets Sight on 1st World
Miners Go "From One Strange World to Another"