THE first three of Chile’s rescued miners left hospital yesterday as details emerged of violent clashes between the men during their 70-day ordeal.
The miners began their unfamiliar new lives as national heroes and got a taste of what awaits them outside the hospital doors – a swarm of reporters, television producers, publicity agents and even soccer teams all desperate for a piece of their story.
Juan Illanes, 52, Bolivian Carlos Mamani, 24, and Edison Pena, 34, departed under high security in a government vehicle that was chased by a mob of photographers after hospital officials determined they were well enough to go home.
“I’m well, really healthy,” said Mr Pena as he left the hospital followed by a throng of journalists. “I thought I would never come back . . . Thank you for believing we were alive.”
As he worked his way through the crowd, Mr Pena said: “We are not pop stars or anything, we’re just ordinary people.”
Another three of the miners had surgery under general anaesthetic for serious dental problems, while one was being treated for pneumonia. Two were diagnosed with the lung disease silicosis that is common among miners because of dust inhalation while working underground.
Richard Villaroel recounted his ordeal to Chilean public broadcaster TVN yesterday. “When one of us found it tough, the comrade at his side helped him,” he said. “We all supported each other. When one was doing badly, another would point him back in the right direction.”
But he was quoted in The Guardian newspaper as saying soon after his rescue: “We were waiting for death. We were consuming ourselves, we were so skinny.”
He said the mood often swung from euphoria to despair. The miners were divided into splinter groups over disagreements, with some confrontations allegedly ending in violence.
Daniel Sanderson, a miner who had left the mine just hours before the cave-in, had received a letter from one of the trapped miners that described serious confrontations that became physical, the Guardian said.
“They broke into three groups because they were fighting. There were fist fights,” Mr Sanderson said.
Mine foreman Luis Urzua, the last miner to be freed after a world-record 70 days, told the Guardian he kept the group together by putting everything to a democratic vote. “We were trying to find out what we could do and what we could not,” said Mr Urzua. “Then we had to figure out the food.”
The handwritten message with which the miners told the world they were alive, the capsule that delivered them to freedom and the rescue shaft are to be preserved as reminders of one of the country’s greatest moments, President Sebastian Pinera announced yesterday.
The President said his new “friends” would visit him at the presidential palace in Santiago on October 25 and play a football match against the officials who helped to rescue them.
The miners’ team will be led by Franklin Lobos, a former professional footballer, who described his 69-day entombing 700m below the surface of the Atacama desert as “the toughest match of my life”.
The San Jose gold and copper mine will not reopen and lawsuits brought by 27 of the miners’ families against its owners and the government’s mines inspectorate will proceed.
About 40km away in the barren brown mountains of the Atacama, the sprawling mass of tents and containers that was Camp Esperanza was being dismantled yesterday, but Mr Pinera said the minehead would be preserved as a national monument.