Editorial: 33 bits of good news in one day must be a world record

Published 3:10 am Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

A rare joyous ending bloomed Wednesday as all 33 Chilean miners entombed in a granite prison half a mile underground for 69 harrowing days rode a capsule called Phoenix to the surface of the Camp Hope media circus sprung to life in the barren Atacama desert. No one has ever been trapped so long and lived.

This dramatic moment is all the sweeter because of the rarity that everyone survived without tragedy. The whole world was riveted by the 22 1/2-hour rescue operation of “los 33” which some 2,000 people witnessed at the San Jose mine.

We’re unaccustomed to such words as “flawless execution.”

When foreman Luis Urzua stepped safely back into this world, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera shook hands and led the throng in singing their national anthem. “Welcome to life,” Pinera told Victor Segvia, the 15th miner exiting the 2,041-foot shaft it took a month to drill into blinding sunlight.

One by one all day long they emerged to exuberant cheers.

The 13-foot tall pod painted in the white, blue and red of Chile’s flag, lowered to where 700,000 tons of rock collapsed into the now closed gold and copper mine Aug. 5.

Extreme care went into the rescue. Miners were monitored by video after strapping in for signs of panic. They had oxygen masks and dark glasses to shield their eyes and sweaters for the transition from subterranean swelter to cool air up top.

So well went the rescue that image managers loosened their grip. A huge flag that was to hide the hole from view moved aside so hundreds of cameras trained from a hill could record pictures state TV fed live. “There was no reason not to allow the eyes of the world — which have been watching this operation so closely — to see it,” Pinera said.

The miners looked healthier than expected and clean-shaven thanks to tubes lowered with food, medicine, razors and shaving cream. Several thrust their fists up like boxers.

Franklin Lobos, who played for the national soccer team in the 1980s, bounced a ball on his knee. Remember that for the first 17 days no one knew if they were alive.

Car horns honked in Santiago, the capital. School canceled in Copiapo, the town where 24 miners live. News channels carried the event live, even Iran’s state English-language Press TV.

Crews from Russia, Japan and North Korea state television met at the mine. Pope Benedict XVI said in Spanish he “continues to entrust to God’s goodness” the fate of the men.

The one Bolivian miner, Carlos Mamani, was visited at the clinic by his president, Evo Morales. Though most of the men were out of the hospital by Friday, signs of their psychological trauma and fragility began to surface in disorientation as they tried to reacquaint themselves with life above ground.

Officials canceled a Mass of thanksgiving set for Sunday.

“It’s not a good idea that they go back to the mine so soon,” warned psychologist Alberto Iturra, a member of the team that counseled the men during their ordeal. “These are miners, not movie stars.” Health Minister Jaime Manalich  agreed. “They still have to process what they went through, to let their experiences settle, have their nightmares and let out their anxieties.”

Miners have been inundated with job offers, free iPods, cash and invitations from celebrities and presidents dangling Mediterranean tours. A Greek mining company wants to send them to the Aegean Islands. Football teams in Madrid, Spain, Manchester, England, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, want them in their stadiums. Bolivia’s president wants them at his palace.

National heroes surveying a new landscape were guarding dramatic details of their story to divide the spoils of media stardom fairly. They will be tested and tempted in the days to come.

Politicians talk about the world’s perception of Chile changing, with the unprecedented rescue going off without a hitch ahead of schedule burnishing its image. Some regard them as no less than messengers of God’s consolation to Chile for that February earthquake that left hundreds dead.

“Chile has emerged from this with more respect and stronger in the eyes of the world,” President Pinera 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.” For now, it is enough to savor a rare happy ending.