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Chile miners: From world fame to humble homes

COPIAPO, Chile

Despite donations and the promise of book and movie deals, most of the 33 Chilean miners trapped more than two months have returned to lives of struggle in impoverished homes. Some worry it won't get better. "Three months from now, what will I be doing? Selling candy on the beach? Wondering what the government has done for us? Nothing," said Edison Pena. "I'm very afraid and I would like for things to change."

All but one of the miners have been released from the hospital since their rescue Wednesday from the San Jose gold and copper mine, where they had been trapped nearly a half-mile underground since the Aug. 5 collapse. Most returned to the mine Sunday for a Mass at the camp where relatives had waited for them.

"It's nice to be here where our families were," said Luis Urzua, the shift foreman who has been praised for leading the trapped miners through the 69-day ordeal, especially in the first 17 days when they had no contact with the outside world and just a 48-hour emergency food supply.

The camp on a barren hill in Chile's northern Atacama region is rapidly being dismantled. Miner Carlos Barrios' family was busy Sunday taking apart their encampment, which was among the first built at Camp Hope.

"I feel sorry (to leave) but at the same time I'm happy because I'm with my son again," stepmother Griselda Godoy said.

Pulled from the mine one by one in a custom-built capsule, the miners emerged as international celebrities, but their lives have become less glamorous. Many have returned to poverty in the hardscrabble neighborhoods that climb the hills around Copiapo, the Atacama region's gritty capital. Some have strained relationships with the families who held vigil. All face a search for work since the mine has filed for bankruptcy.

Miner Carlos Mamani lives in a small, green, wooden house on an unpaved road in Padre Negro, a neighborhood on a hill where the glittering streetlights of Copiapo stretch out like a carpet. But Padre Negro's 38 houses lack access to sewers and running water.

"This area is dangerous at night. Drugs are sold here and there is theft. I've lived here for a while and I still have to be careful to avoid problems," said one of Mamani's neighbors, 15-year-old Jose Vadillo.

Some miners live closer to central Copiapo, in a neighborhood where gangs mark their territory with old sneakers hanging from electricity poles. Miner Carlos Bugueno is among those living in Tiltil Bajo, a neighborhood of wood-and-tin houses that lack sewage connections. He shares his house with 16 relatives.

Chile's government has promised to look out for the rescued miners, and each has about $12,000 in donations waiting for them in bank accounts, but their futures remain uncertain. Seven of the miners held a news conference Saturday to plead for job training and government benefits. They also pleaded for privacy, citing the media's treatment of fellow miners Johnny Barrios and Claudio Yanez.

Barrios' wife and lover both arrived at the mine following the collapse, launching a high-profile soap opera. The wife accepted his donations, while Barrios went home with the lover.

Yanez's strained relationships were on display when the media waited outside his mother's house, where his family had prepared a welcome-home party, and he didn't show up. He went instead to the home of the mother of his two children. Yanez's sister, cameras in tow, later threw a rock at the woman's house, and yelled that he can forget having his family to support him.

The miners are getting substantial offers of money for their story, but made a pact to say little about their ordeal while negotiating movie and book rights. They even hired an accountant while underground to track and share the proceeds, their friend, shift foreman Pablo Ramirez, told the Associated Press.

"It's true that we made a pact of silence not to speak of those topics until we think the moment has come," miner Pablo Rojas said Sunday.

"All that will come out later. As a group, we're thinking about putting out a book, and that will tell everything," said Ariel Ticona, whose baby, Esperanza — Spanish for hope — was born during his entrapment.

Some details have trickled out.

For instance, Ramirez said that as desperation grew in the days before rescuers broke through with a drill on Aug. 22, the miners took to drinking metallic-tasting water from the radiators of vehicles trapped with them.

"Incredible things happened," he said.

Relatives and friends have also said there were plenty of heated arguments below — but won't discuss them publicly.

Chile miners: From world fame to humble homes 10/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 18, 2010 10:40am]

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