SANTIAGO, Chile, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Jubilant Chile faces tough tasks ahead amid nationwide celebration of the rescues of 33 miners after 69 days of being trapped more than 2,000 feet underground.
The biggest headache facing President Sebastian Pinera is how to secure -- urgently and effectively -- the safety of mines across the country that have had a checkered history of regulated safety of operation. Mining earns Chile 40 percent of its total revenue.
More than 30 people a year on average have died in mining disasters over the past decade and 2008 was the worst year in that period, when 43 lost their lives.
Pinera is contemplating tough action against officials responsible for the San Jose mine accident, amid fears the operators will defy compensation claims by resorting to legal loopholes.
Lapses in security and neglect of safety codes that was seen behind the collapse of the mine, trapping the miners below ground, but luckily close to an emergency shelter, are widespread across the mining sector.
Bringing the hundreds of operators, both state-owned and commercial, to book for flouting safety laws and for poor precautionary measures will be an uphill task. Mining inspectorate officials said they lacked equipment and staff to effectively monitor adherence to safety rules across the sector. Critics also cited corruption that allowed some mining operators to carry on despite neglect of rules.
More than 12,000 people work in the mining sector, the number of those dependent on the miners or support crews runs into tens of thousands.
Analysts said the meticulous rescue effort boosted national morale that was deeply affected by Chile's magnitude 8.8 earthquake in February, which coincided with Pinera's inauguration as successor to former President Michelle Bachelet. The temblor killed more than 400 people and affected 1.5 million others.
Pinera said Chile had emerged "more united and stronger than ever" after the successful rescue, which was given religious dimensions after devout Roman Catholics likened it to a miracle. Thanksgiving prayers attracted thousands of Chileans to churches across the country.
Camp Hope, the rescue site in the Atacama desert, erupted in loud cheers as the capsule carrying Luis Urzua, the shift supervisor credited with keeping up the spirits of the group and the last of the 33 miners to be rescued, emerged from the borehole that reached down to the miners' emergency shelter. He was welcomed by Pinera.
"We have done what the entire world was waiting for," said Urzua, adding, "with no further news to report it's your shift now, Mr. President."
Pinera replied: "You are not the same and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration. Go hug your wife and your daughter."
Six rescuers who went down into the mine for the final operation carried a banner, "Mission accomplished" as the celebrations gained momentum.
When the men were found alive 17 days after the Aug. 5 mine collapse, Estaban Rojas, 44, promised his wife of 25 years a Catholic church wedding when he was freed. Emerging from the capsule, he dropped to his knees, made the sign of the cross and prayed with her on the surface.
Pinera and Bolivian President Evo Morales praised both the miners and rescuers and
Pinera called the rescues a victory over fear and death.
"I am more convinced than ever that the greatest wealth of our country is not copper, but our miners," he said. Morales said Bolivia wouldn't forget the rescue of Carlos Mamani, the only trapped Bolivian miner. "This incident is uniting us more and more every day," Morales said.
Pinera said the San Jose mine would close forever and he vowed to create safer conditions for those who work in the country's biggest industry. The conditions that caused the accident "will not go unpunished. Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility," he warned.
Early estimates cited by Pinera said the cost of the rescue could be $10 million-$20 million, one-third covered by private donations and the rest coming from government funds and state-owned Codelco, the largest copper mining company.