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Miners about to go own ways as doctors release them

The first miners will be released from hospital shortly and others will follow Friday, a hospital official said Thursday, heralding the inevitable breakup of the 33 men who forged a unique bond.
/ Source: news services

The first miners will be released from hospital shortly and others will follow Friday and into the weekend, a hospital official said Thursday, heralding the inevitable breakup of the 33 men who forged a bond around the possibility of death, the prospect of hope and the reality of rescue.

"We hope that some of them, two or three, can be released" Thursday, said Jorge Montes, an official at the hospital in Copiapo, where the miners were being treated and where President Sebastian Pinera visited them on Thursday.

Families were being allowed to visit in shifts.

Montes would not disclose which miners would be released first, but emphasized all would continue to receive physical and mental evaluations over time.

One of the miners had pneumonia and was being treated with antibiotics, and others need dental treatment, but none were suffering from serious health problems.

Experts said the most lasting damage could be emotional.

Relatives were organizing welcome-home parties and trying to hold off an onslaught of demands by those seeking to share in the glory of the amazing rescue.

Pinera on Thursday posed with the miners, most of whom were wearing bathrobes and slippers, for a group photo.

He also invited the miners to visit the presidential palace toward the end of the month for a soccer match against members of his cabinet and himself.

"The team that wins will stay in La Moneda (presidential palace). The team that loses goes back to the mine," he joked.

The billionaire businessman-turned-politician also promised "radical" changes and tougher safety laws to improve how businesses treat their workers.

"Never again in our country will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San Jose Mine, and in many other places in our country," said Pinera, who took office in March as Chile's first elected right-wing president in a half-century.

None of the miners are suffering from shock despite their harrowing entrapment, a reflection of the care and feeding sent through a narrow borehole by a team of hundreds during their 69 days trapped underground. Even a team of psychologists helped keep them sane.

"All of them have been subjected to high levels of stress and most of them have tolerated it in a truly exceptional way," said Montes. "We don't see any problems of a psychological or a medical nature."

"We were completely surprised," added Health Minister Jaime Manalich. "We called this a real miracle, because any effort we could have made doesn't explain the health condition these people have today."

After weeks of fear, desperation and finally hope, the miners were pulled out one by one in a capsule that carried them through a narrow tube of solid rock — a dizzying 23-hour marathon of rescues.

Honors and offers of jobs and even vacations poured in from around the world for men who walked into a mine as workers doing a dirty job to support their children or buy a house.

Spain's Real Madrid football team invited the 33 to attend a game in their stadium. Chile's football federation said it would offer a job with its youth teams to Franklin Lobos, a former national team player who had later found himself driving a taxi to make ends meet before he was caught in the mine collapse. It also said it was organizing a "Copa 33" tournament in their honor.

The internationally popular Spanish language variety show "Sabado Gigante" announced it would dedicate a show to "The 33" and invited fans to suggest questions for them.

And a Greek mining company offered to fly each one, with a companion, for a week's vacation in the Mediterranean.

Pinera, meanwhile, vowed that those responsible for the mine collapse "will not go unpunished. Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility."

The rescue will end up costing "somewhere between $10 (million) and $20 million," a third covered by private donations with the rest coming from state-owned miner Codelco — the country's largest company— and the government itself, Pinera said.

Mining accounts for 40 percent of the Chilean state's earnings and the rescue's details were run by its operations manager, Andre Sougarret.

The Aug. 5 collapse brought the 125-year-old San Jose mine's checkered safety record into focus and put Chile's top industry under close scrutiny. Many believe the collapse occurred because the mine was overworked and lacked such essential safety features as a reinforced escape shaft.

The families of 27 of the 33 rescued miners have sued its owners for negligence and compensatory damages. A separate suit was being prepared accusing the government of failing to enforce its safety regulations.

Also suing the San Esteban company is Gino Cortez, a 40-year-old miner who lost his lower left leg a month before the mine collapsed when a rock fell on him in an area that lacked a protective metal screen.

"This mine has to close," rescue coordinator Sougarret said Thursday.

Pinera said he will triple the budget of mine safety agency Sernageomin, whose top regulators he fired after the collapse. He also created a commission to investigate the accident and recommend changes. Some action was swift: The agency shut down at least 18 small mines for safety violations.

"The mine has been proven dangerous, but what's worse are the mine owners who don't offer any protection to men who work in mining," said Patricio Aguilar, 60, of nearby Copiapo, during celebrations of the meticulously executed rescue.

Advances in technology notwithstanding, mining remains a dangerous profession in the smaller mines here in northern Chile, which employ about 10,000 people.

Since 2000, about 34 people have died every year on average in mining accidents in Chile — with a high of 43 in 2008, according to Sernageomin data.