COPIAPO, CHILE—Mere days after being hoisted to their long-awaited freedom, 13 of the 33 miners returned Sunday to the San Jose mine where they had been entombed by a rock collapse for more than two months.
For the men and their families, it was a turning of a page, the first of many steps they will take towards healing from their 69-day nightmare.
Accompanied by relatives, the men attended an emotionally charged religious service led by Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy at the entrance of the mine site and thanked God for their freedom.
“It was inspiring,” said 52-year-old Juan Illanes, described by many as the group’s spokesman, after the ceremony.
“Seeing this camp I feel I’ve had incredible support,” he added, referring to the tent village where many of the miners’ families lived for months. “It gives you strength.”
But as the miners sang hymns at the service, which was closed to the media, dozens of miners not caught by the cave-in staged a protest, blowing vuvuzelas and holding up banners to demand that the mine’s owners compensate them for the jobs they have lost.
“We want them to pay us!” they chanted, holding signs that read, “What about us? Who is going to get us out of the hole?”
After the service, a handful of the 33 miners met with the protesters and voiced their support, including 63-year-old Mario Gomez. The men also took some time to visit Camp Hope, where their loved ones had camped for more than two months while awaiting the rescue of their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers.
For Antonia Godoy, who visited Camp Hope with her miner son Richard Villarroel the previous day, it was important for her son that he see it with his own eyes.
“He saw how his mom lived for two months waiting for him to get out of the mine,” Godoy said. “He never imagined this place was like a little city.”
Godoy said her son was stunned by the size of Camp Hope, which began as a cluster of tents but gradually blossomed into a full-fledged village. She returned again to the site Sunday but her son could not attend this time around because his wife was due to give birth at any moment, she said.
“This is like two births. (My grandchild) at the same time my son was reborn from the earth,” Godoy said, holding a framed picture of Villarroel.
Inside a cordoned-off area at Camp Hope, several miners could be seen helping relatives dismantle their tarp homes. Dressed in a blue soccer jersey and wearing the Oakley sunglasses given to him for his rescue, Jimmy Sanchez, 19, helped his father fold his tent and pack their belongings.
Several miners also saw each other again for the first time since their release from hospital and greeted each other like old comrades. At one point, fellow miner Dario Segovia spotted Sanchez and shouted out “Jimmy!” before walking briskly over and giving the teenager a hug.
For Gaston Henriquez, brother of 54-year-old Jose Henriquez, the 24th miner to be lifted out in this week’s history-making rescue, Sunday was his final visit to Camp Hope before finally returning to the south of Chile.
It was bittersweet walking away from the place he’s called home since early August, he said.
“I want to leave and I don’t want to leave,” he said. “(But) it’s time to go.”