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Chile’s rescued miners face reality checks aboveground

They emerged changed men from the hole in the Chilean desert, once-unsung gold and copper miners from an obscure town in the country’s barren north.

Rescued from a granite prison half a mile underground, their first hours of freedom offered a taste of what the rest of their lives might hold: commercial offers, entreaties for the tiniest detail of their lives, and people asking, over and over, what it was like to endure 69 days below the earth.

“All he wants is to enjoy the daylight, the sunshine and the blue sky,” said Angelica Pena, wife of 34-year-old miner Edison Pena, an avid Elvis fan who asked to have a photograph of the sun sent to him underground. Now he’ll be going to Graceland.

Even before the last of them had emerged, the area around the mine having transformed from a bleak expanse of sand into a global media carnival, it was clear that the 33 miners were stepping from the rescue pod into profoundly changed personal landscapes.

They had descended, 70 days earlier, as anonymous as any of the thousands who work the deep rock under the Atacama desert or the country’s other mineral troves. Some had been going underground for four decades. Some had been trapped before.

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After 17 days facing starvation in dust and darkness before being found, and an additional 53 days waiting for a specially designed rescue capsule to hoist them to safety, the miners reached the surface as emblems of courage and a nation’s pluck. Everyone had lived, making it the rarest thing: a breath-catching drama without an attendant tragedy.

They were greeted, one by one, by their buoyant president, who vowed greater safety oversight of his nation’s mines. They were deluged with free iPods, cash donations, invitations to soccer games and Mediterranean tours.

They vowed, many of them, never to go underground again. As they fielded lucrative offers for their stories, it did not seem so far-fetched a notion.

With the elation still fresh, it was too soon to gauge the myriad ways the lives of “los 33" will be changed, or how their celebrated solidarity — they have reportedly vowed to share proceeds evenly — might be tested by fame and money.

But the transformative nature of the near-death experience was a key theme Thursday in interviews with relatives and friends who visited the miners at Copiapo Regional Hospital, where all were admitted for observation. Hospital officials said three would be released by Thursday evening.

Like many of the other survivors, Dario Segovia, a veteran 48-year-old miner who was the 20th to be rescued, said his religious faith has been bolstered. He attributed his survival to “the prayers of all Chilean people,” said family friend Lorena Espinosa. “He thinks God has given him a second chance at life.”

A miner’s son with 12 siblings, Segovia does not want to return to the mines and plans to invest in a small business with the thousands of dollars he expects to receive in donations.

In the 17 days before a probe drill discovered the miners’ location, Segovia and the other trapped men were consumed by anguish, especially before they had managed to organize themselves. They had to drink contaminated water and ate allotted spoonfuls of canned tuna and salmon every other day.

“He has told us it was a desperate, atrocious time,” said his brother, Alberto Segovia. “All he wants now is to work aboveground, start his own small business, open a little store maybe, or buy a delivery truck.”

Segovia’s sister, Maria, became known as the unofficial mayor of Camp Hope for her ability to rally the spirits of other families.

During the miners’ ordeal, Jose Henriquez, a 55-year-old evangelical Christian, emerged as their spiritual leader and helped convert many of the others to a deeper faith, said the Rev. Javier Soto, a pastor and family friend.

“He told the men that their rescue is a signal from God that he has Chile on his mind, and in great esteem,” Soto said. “He convinced them that they aren’t the same as they were before the accident, that [they] are messengers of God’s consolation to Chile” after the February earthquake that killed hundreds of Chileans.

Pena, a triathlete who is fond of doing Presley impressions, has received a complete set of Elvis recordings from the singer’s record company, and a local TV channel has offered to fly him, all expenses paid, to Graceland, the Presley home and gravesite.

Carlos Mamani, 24, who had been working in the mine for only five days and was the sole Bolivian among the miners, had emerged “emotionally unstable” from the ordeal and found the mere mention of it painful, said his father-in-law, Jhonny Quispe. He added that Mamani has developed family ties in the region and expected to stay there, despite the offer of a job in Bolivia from its president on Wednesday.

Miner Omar Reygadas, a 56-year-old widower with six children, emerged with a Bible in his hands. He had survived two previous mine landslides but still had no intention of leaving the business, his family said. His daughter, Ximena, said he would welcome any TV or movie deals. He told relatives that the miners bonded tightly during the ordeal underground.

Carlos Bugueno, 26, has told his family he doesn’t want to talk about what happened while he was trapped, though he had described it as a “slaughterhouse” before the accident, family members said. His wife, Dayanna, said she vehemently opposes his return to mining, though she will leave the decision to him.

“He’ll be known throughout the world,” she said. “He is a hero.”

Miners have agreed among themselves not to talk about the Aug. 5 cave-in that left them trapped, at least for now, because the government is investigating the cause.

President Sebastian Pinera said at a news conference Thursday that Chile, or at least the world’s perception of it, had changed as much as the miners themselves. He said the success of the unprecedented rescue operation, which came off without a hitch and ahead of schedule, had added luster to Chile’s image.

“Chile has emerged from this more respected and stronger in the eyes of the world,” he said. “Now there is a new meaning when someone says it’s been done a la chilena, or the Chilean way. It now means that it’s been done right, with all the necessary machinery and human resources and with a sense of urgency, not to be left for tomorrow.”

Pinera himself is a different man, enjoying 80% approval ratings for his handling of the rescue and promising to use that popularity to enact safety reforms not just in mining but also in farming, fishing and transportation.

Luis Urzua, the 54-year-old shift foreman who insisted on being the last miner rescued, emerged with these words for Pinera: “Don’t let this happen again, Mr. President.”

Writing in the newspaper El Pais, Hernan Rivera Letelier, a Chilean novelist and former miner, cautioned the rescued miners that though they had survived “a long season in hell,” they should now brace themselves for another ordeal: “the hell of the show, the alienating hell of TV sets.”

He urged them to embrace their families. “Hold on to them as you hung on to the capsule that brought you out,” he said. “It’s the only way to survive this media deluge that’s raining down on you.”

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Special correspondent Kraul reported from Copiapo, Chile, and Times staff writer Goffard from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Fabiola Gutierrez in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.


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