SANTIAGO – As the world watched the rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from deep inside a flooded cave, on the other side of the globe a group of Chilean miners followed the unfolding drama anxiously.
The 33 former gold miners were themselves the focus of international media attention eight years ago when they were freed after 69 days trapped underground at the San Jose mine in northern Chile.
Since their rescue by Chilean authorities and international experts amid a blaze of publicity, many of the miners have endured relationship breakdowns, psychological problems, penury and unemployment, members of the group said.
The former mine foreman Luis Urzua urged the rescued children to stick close to their families and avoid their heads being turned by financial offers. The last of the boys was freed on Tuesday, and all twelve are in a hospital where they are being kept for tests.
Urzua described his own experience of being brought to the surface into the glare of media lights, lawyers proffering rights contracts and politicians eager to share the limelight.
“They and their families won’t have the capacity to cope with this kind of thing. We couldn’t cope and we were adults,” said Urzua, now aged 62, who was credited with keeping his colleagues united underground.
Urzua praised the Thai authorities’ caution in dealing with the situation. They did not identify the boys, who are aged between 11 and 16 and have said they are keeping them in quarantine in the hospital because of the risk of infection.
“That is important, so these children can reintegrate little by little into their old environment, because they will be very traumatized and vulnerable,” Urzua told Reuters on Tuesday. He said he had prayed daily for the boys with his family.
He urged them to tell their stories only once they were ready.
“I hope one day, in a few years, they will be able to tell their story because, like ours, it’s a story of faith and hope,” he said.
Nine miners, including Urzua, are taking legal action in Chile against two lawyers they accuse of defrauding them over the rights to a book and a Hollywood film starring Antonio Banderas.
One of the lawyers, Remberto Valdes Hueche, said in an email on Tuesday that he continued to work with the majority of the previously trapped miners and the fraud accusation made by the nine was “without substance.”
A Chilean judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to determine the cause of the San Jose accident and no-one was ultimately held responsible.
Mental health problems
Urzua, who now works for Chile’s national mining and geological service as a motivational speaker, said many of the 33 miners still suffer from mental health problems and could not work.
“Almost every miner has psychological issues: they don’t sleep or feel well. It’s not well-known in Chile but they are in despair,” he said.
Since the news emerged two weeks ago that the Thai soccer team was trapped, several of the miners have followed each development online and through the international media. For one of their number, tracking the rescue proved too much to bear.
“I have been suffering from anxiety and have returned to my therapist today,” Omar Reygadas told Reuters.
Jorge Galleguillos, another of “Los 33,” as the group is known in Chile, recalled how he had emerged to global celebrity, and was invited to Hollywood, the Vatican, Israel and the Chilean presidential palace.
“Everything changes,” the 64-year-old told Reuters. “In the moment, everyone is talking about you – in the press, on television, you are front page news everywhere – and then … nothing.”
“So many promises were made to us and then we were abandoned. Now we are forgotten. I hope the same does not happen to them.”