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Rescued Chilean miners return to mine for ceremony

Some of the 33 miners who were rescued last week after 69 days trapped underground returned today for a religious service at the northern Chilean mine that almost became their tomb.

world Updated: Oct 17, 2010 21:10 IST

Some of the 33 miners who were rescued last week after 69 days trapped underground returned on Sunday for a religious service at the northern Chilean mine that almost became their tomb.

The miners, their families and friends will attend a private ceremony in a tent at the mouth of the San Jose copper and gold mine from which they were hoisted to freedom on Wednesday in a flawless rescue operation watched live on television around the world.

Among the first of a dozen miners to arrive for the service was Juan Carlos Aguilar, who walked around the minehead holding the hand of his daughter and declining to speak to the press.

The miners were trapped for more than two months at 2,050 feet (625 metres) underground.

The ceremony will be held in the area known as "Camp Hope", where family members gathered to pray and await news about their husbands, sons and fathers.

"It's a very beautiful experience to be here and see where our families were," said Luis Urzua, the foreman of the miners and the last one to be pulled to safety.

Ending what many felt was a spiritual mission, families of the miners on Thursday packed up the tents they had lived in for the previous two months and prepared for life outside the intense fellowship that the camp provided.

They descended on the barren land around the San Jose mine after it collapsed on Aug. 5, fearful that all the miners were dead but refusing to give up. Many of the relatives are deeply religious and some prayed almost around the clock.

Popularity boost
A poll published on Sunday by La Tercera newspaper said that 84 per cent of Chileans approved the handling of the mine crisis by President Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire businessman who took office in March.

The conservative leader visited the mine several times during the two months that the workers were trapped and personally oversaw the 23-hour rescue operation during which they were hoisted one by one to the surface.

His overall popularity was 62 per cent, according to La Tercera's poll conducted late last week. Surveys taken before the rescue had placed Pinera's popularity in the 50s.

Basking in the glow of the successful rescue, Pinera took some rock from the mine on a European tour. He will meet Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace on Monday and hold talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

"I am bringing him a piece of rock from the mine, so he will keep it in Downing Street as a tribute to courage, faith and hope," Pinera told reporters in London.

69 days in hell
The miners are not saying much so far about what it was really like after the cave-in that left them huddled together in a humid cavern. Some of them are talking about saving their stories for a book about those 69 hellish days.

Publishing experts say a book by the miners could be quite profitable.

When the mine caved in, the men were thought to have died in yet another of Latin America's litany of mining accidents. Rescuers found them two and a half weeks later with a bore hole the width of a grapefruit.

That tiny hole became an umbilical cord used to pass down hydration gels, water and food to keep them alive. A bigger shaft was later bored to bring them up.

The miners were hauled out one by one on Wednesday in a metal capsule little wider than a man's shoulders and dubbed "Phoenix" after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes.

Miner Mario Gomez, who at 63 was the oldest of the rescued workers, told local television that he emerged from the experience with some advice for his grandchildren.

"Never go into a mine," he said. "Study a profession."

First Published: Oct 17, 2010 21:08 IST