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Chile, divided by quake, unites around miners

Ramon Avalo, 81, wipes tears after seeing the names of his two grandsons, miners Renan and Florencio Avalo, written on Chilean flags. Ramon and other relatives of 33 trapped miners were outside the collapsed San Jose mine near Copiapo on Saturday.

Associated Press

Ramon Avalo, 81, wipes tears after seeing the names of his two grandsons, miners Renan and Florencio Avalo, written on Chilean flags. Ramon and other relatives of 33 trapped miners were outside the collapsed San Jose mine near Copiapo on Saturday.

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — Just six months ago, one of the largest earthquakes in a century tore Chile apart, physically ripping the ground, triggering a deadly tsunami and leaving in the wreckage a divided society and government trying to decide whom to blame.

Now, with Chile confronting a new disaster — 33 men trapped alive in a mine below the Atacama Desert since Aug. 5 — the nation is unified by the drama playing out in slow motion.

Sitting alone on a hill above the mine where his brother, Juan, is buried alive, Oscar Illanes, 51, quietly fidgets with pebbles in his right hand and contemplates how his personal tragedy has also become that of his countrymen.

"This accident has crossed all borders. Everyone in Chile, rich or poor, a mining family or not, is sending a positive force that sustains us," he said. "The will to survive started with the 33 miners alone under the ground. It soon became 150 as the families arrived here. Now it is an entire nation, all working with the same spirit to free the men."

This time, Chileans are less interested in the blame game and more concentrated on getting the men out of the ground alive, even adopting the one can-do symbol from the quake that killed 500.

A tattered Chilean flag flies above Illanes' head on the hill overlooking the mine and the makeshift camp where the families of those trapped await their return.

Once just a piece of cloth, it was transformed into a sacred symbol of Chilean resilience when a young man was photographed by the Associated Press pulling it from the wreckage of the Feb. 27 earthquake.

But Chile's navy and emergency management office were criticized for failing to issue an alert that might have saved hundreds from the tsunami that caused the quake's largest death toll.

Chileans were also angered by a massive wave of looting, as thousands of people from grandmothers to small children took everything from mattresses to refrigerators and flat-screen TVs. Then-President Michelle Bachelet said it reflected "the moral damage of the people" in a nation that considers itself by far the most advanced in Latin America.

Many see the united effort and support for the miners as a way to move past the shameful episodes surrounding the quake and to demonstrate the better side of Chileans in the face of adversity.

There has been some finger-pointing in the days since the miners were trapped. The San Esteban mining company has taken the brunt of the criticism for lacking safety standards that could have prevented the event or allowed the miners to escape.

President Sebastian Pinera fired top regulators and created a commission to investigate the accident. Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the government's mine regulatory agency — which has only 18 inspectors for several hundred mines — would be overhauled and receive more resources.

But a positive energy floods the town of Copiapo near the mine.

"Those 33 men are the focus of every Chilean's attention. We cannot fail to bring them out, that would be unthinkable," said Luis Arancilia, 68, who sat in the main plaza reading the latest news of the accident. "All efforts, all energy must be focused on bringing them up."

On light poles around the plaza where Arancilia spoke, posters advertised a music festival, with all proceeds going to the miners.

At the San Jose mine, the city has constructed large white tents where the miners' families eat, sleep and seek respite from the questions and cameras of scores of journalists who have arrived at the remote spot from around the world — though others have their own tents and prefer to camp outside the protected area.

The federal and local governments are working together to even bring entertainment to the family members, who say they will wait at the camp during the rescue effort, which authorities warn could take four months.

Each morning, a government worker organizes and supervises games for the children in the camp, giving weary parents a few hours of rest from caring for them. There are concerts some nights, and television shows projected on the side of one of the tents. Clowns meander through the crowds, and police officers put on puppet shows.

Back on the hill overlooking the mine, Illanes said he hopes one day his only feeling about the horrible accident will be "what can be accomplished when we work together in a positive way. … I hope everyone can take a lesson from that."

Chile, divided by quake, unites around miners 08/28/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 28, 2010 11:39pm]

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