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Chile has a new image in reporter’s mind

Before arriving at Camp Hope to cover the rescue of the 33 trapped miners, I’d stuck a mental Post-It note on Chile in the world map of my mind. It read, “merlot, mining and Augusto Pinochet.”

That is what this long, skinny, country symbolized to me: wine, gold and copper production and a notorious dictator.

Now that I’ve witnessed firsthand the remarkable rescue of the men and spent two weeks in close quarters with their family members, I’m going to rewrite that little yellow sticker:

“Generosity, hake and Maria Campillay.”

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Generosity for the spirit of solidarity that was so tangible at Camp Hope, the windblown tent city where family members took up residence to hold vigil. Hake for the truckloads of the fish that two fishermen’s cooperatives donated every week to keep hundreds of family members, government officials and media types fed throughout the process.

Maria Campillay? She’s a social worker in the neighboring town of Caldera who took an indefinite and unpaid leave from her government job after the trapped miners were discovered alive Aug. 22 to come to Camp Hope and join the informal mess hall staff.

Day and night, she and a dozen other volunteers, including six other Caldera town employees, cooked the food that the fishermen, supermarket chains and other individuals and businesses had donated.

“Foreigners seem surprised to learn that there is a lot of solidarity among us Chileans, but that’s the way we are,” Campillay said. “Something similar happened after the earthquake in February in southern Chile. Many of us left what we were doing and went there to pitch in.”

“Solidarity is very characteristic of us Chileans,” said Alicia Campos, the mother of miner Daniel Herrera Campos, after having a pasta lunch at the makeshift cafeteria. “And I am eternally grateful to everyone.”

In rescuing “Los 33,” Chile pulled off an impressive and complex engineering feat and took pains to demonstrate to the world that it would spare no expense in safeguarding its miners.

But the image of Chile I take home with me has more to do with compassion than competence.

In Camp Hope, I heard no blame games or overt acrimony toward the government or the mining company. Instead, there was a display of unity, heart and team spirit as I have rarely seen. Maybe it’s the harsh Atacama desert surroundings that make people pull together. Or maybe it’s the fact that mining, which employs thousands in the region, is an activity that can’t be done alone.

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Directly and indirectly, many contributed to help save the miners and take care of their families. Half a dozen Chilean and international mining companies donated the use of the machinery that dug the shafts to reach Los 33. A food service company, supermarket chain and soft-drink bottler gave tons of food and drinks.

Pedro Rivero, a miner in Copiapo, volunteered as one of six rescuers who were lowered in the steel capsule to bring the miners up after nearly 10 weeks half a mile underground.

“I’ve worked in the mines since I was a child, as did my father and grandfather,” Rivero said. “When it was known they were stuck down there, I couldn’t carry on as if nothing had happened. Los 33 deserved everything we could do for them.”

Mining heavy-equipment operator Rolando Gonzales put his day job aside to become Rolly the Clown for the last couple of weeks of the vigil and keep the dozens of kids living at Camp Hope entertained.

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“Rolly isn’t charging anybody anything. No one is up here,” said Sen. Baldo Prokurica, who represents the region in Chile’s Congress.

My images of Campillay and Rolly will survive the long media slog of “as told to’s,” reality shows and bio-pics that has just begun. Miners have already been told to clam up, partly on recommendations from the rescue medical team to preserve their sanity, but also to keep their story fresh for future packaging.

We’ve seen it before. The three U.S. defense contractors rescued in 2008 from leftist guerrillas in the Colombian jungle gave just a couple of interviews until they began granting them a year later to promote their book recounting their five years of captivity.

And who can blame them? If they are to be consumed by the voracious media beast, why not get paid for their trouble?

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The miners have been offered free trips to Jamaica and Greece, countries that appreciate the promotional value of such globally recognized visitors.

But the donations I’ll remember were those of the heart, by the likes of Rolly the clown. And Maria Campillay.

Kraul is a special correspondent.


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