Chilean miners still struggling after a year

Santiago del Chile (dpa) – A year ago, Chilean miner Jose Ojeda, one of 33 men trapped 700 meters underground, sent the world an optimistic sign of life: “We are well in the refuge – the 33”.
But the message he released to Chilean media one year after has a different ring.
“We are not well, the 33.”
As Chile and the world look back on the dramatic rescue that brought the men to safety after 70 days under the collapsed San Jose Copiapo mine, many of the men continue to struggle. Ojeda suffers from serious diabetes. Mario Gomez, who worked in mines for more than a half-century, is ill with silicosis, a lung disease that often afflicts miners. The youngest man in the group, Jimmy Sanchez, still can’t sleep.
Alberto Iturra, who led the team of psychologists on the rescue, says it’s hard to imagine the stress the men suffered.
“Many people still don’t understand what it means to be in danger of dying for two and a half months. The physical, emotional, spiritual, social cost that that takes. If you weren’t there, you can’t understand, and you’re not going to understand,” he told dpa.
Fifteen of the 33 are unemployed. Many remain in psychological treatment. Four have returned to mining.
“They’re still not done adjusting to family life, to work life. This is very worrying, that after a year they haven’t been able to re-enter a productive working life,” says Iturra.
The rescue last October 13 gripped the nation and the world.
People cheered as the miners in protective dark glasses were pulled one by one out of the earth in the Phoenix 2 rescue capsule, broadcast live on 24-hour news channels.
And even as the men still struggle, their story has taken on the status of legend. They’ve signed a deal with Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy to tell the story of their ordeal. A miner rescue toy set, with figurines representing the men, a drill and the Phoenix 2, sells for 4,000 pesos (10 dollars) in a Chilean supermarket chain.
But so far, the miners haven’t seen the money. Fourteen of the 33 were awarded a disability pension more than a year after the accident, but the fortune that was expected to follow their sudden fame has yet to materialize. The mining company’s 1.9-million-dollar debt to the 200 miners left unemployed by the accident was finally paid by the government after the mine went bankrupt.
It’s been a hard return to reality for President Sebastian Pinera, too. A year ago, he was riding high on more than 80 per cent approval ratings, driven by the rescue that transfixed Chile and the world. A year later, after four months of student strikes, he’s facing the worst ratings of his presidency, the lowest approval of a Chilean government in 20 years.
Despite the lessons of the San Jose Copiapo collapse, mining in Chile remains a hard and dangerous job. Chilean miners work an average of 51 hours per week. In 2009, the death toll in mines was 5.7 for every 100,000 miners. Chilean authorities say 373 miners died on the job in the last decade.
The most recent was just last Saturday: Wilfredo del Carmen Jimenez, who was killed in a mine accident in Melipilla province, south of Santiago.