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Mining the pits of fame

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"Chi-le, Chi-le, Chi-le, Chi-le!"

This lively chant rang out during Halloween this year. Students and residents alike sported many hard hats, fake moustaches and makeshift Chilean flags for fancy dress costumes.

Chile

I myself even raided the hardware stores for a hard hat and torch for a superhero themed party our real life superheroes of the moment.

The Chilean miner costume was one of the most popular Halloween options in the US, with thousands of Chilean flags sold nationwide.

For those few that are oblivious to the references to Chile and miners, and who must have been living in a cave themselves the last few months, I'm talking about the Chilean mining rescue.

On 13th October the last of 33 miners was rescued from a mining refuge 625 metres underground in Copiapo, Chile after 69 days of waiting.

Statistics said there was a 2% chance of finding them alive, at least 50% would be injured, and that at least some would die in the process of re-hydration. Call it a miracle perhaps, but all 33 survived and are the Chilean nation's pride.

Some 1,500 local and global journalists were at the scene of the first-class rescue operation and one billion people tuned in to watch the emotional reunions between the miners and their loved ones.

But what is it about this story that gripped the world and has continued to since? And has this newfound fame become an unwelcome burden to the miners?

Rodrigo Larrain, an exchange student from Concepcion, Chile, said "Everyday I wanted to know what was happening to the miners. When I found out they were being rescued I watched for 48 hours straight."

"With the miners and the earthquake, it has been a very big year for Chile."

"For me, the lack of effort and attention to the earthquake in February has been balanced out by the efforts put in to rescue the miners."

And that is the interesting thing about this global news story. If you would have asked people to name something about Chile before the miners' phenomenon, not many would recall the 8.8 magnitude earthquake from February, or the Pinochet dictatorship, or that Chile is the largest exporter of copper in the world.

In fact, many foreign reporters say they have covered the story from day one, August 21. But for the miners and their families, day one was August 5 when the mine collapsed and the frantic search for the 33 began.

Reflecting on the coverage and interest surrounding the men's struggle for survival after their discovery, it is the story of comradeship and hope that has stood out.

Not only this, it's a story of surprise, determination, perseverance and the will to live against all odds. Anyone who has lost a loved one could relate to the initial loss the families felt. Then who couldn't be happy for them when their husbands, sons and fathers were effectively reborn?

It's a story that can pull heartstrings universally. And Chile has been united with the world because of this ordeal that the miners endured and survived.

But has all this attention from the press, the President, celebrities and even families been another obstacle for the miners to overcome?

Each started their 69-day shift as a normal miner, but they finished the shift as celebrities, superheroes, and national icons. Becoming a household name and labelled a hero can be seen as an ordeal in itself.

There is a lot expected from the miners, from interviewers offering thousands of dollars, invitations to visit presidential palaces, all-expense paid holidays, TV show appearances and book deals to possible film productions.

Edison Pena, the "runner" of the group, was even invited to run the New York marathon as a VIP and was taken to Memphis to visit Elvis Presley's home because he was known to be a big fan.

Like it or not, the miners have a lot to live up to and for them its hard to avoid this fact.

Mario Gomez, the ninth miner to be rescued, says "I'm extremely exhausted from being besieged by the press, tired of all the events and appointments with officials… I hope all of this quiets down pretty soon!"

The weight of their fame has really started to take a toll on some of the miners' emotional well-being. One miner says, "I'm super tired from the siege of the press. Sometimes I think I was better inside the mine."

University of Santiago psychologist Sergio Gonzalez told The Associated Press, "Before being heroes, they are victims,"

"These people who are coming out of the bottom of the mine are different people ... and their families are too."

Dr. Claus Behn, a University of Chile physiologist with expertise on disorders developed after an extreme situation says, "At first they'll feel besieged, poorly treated by the media and perhaps overwhelmed by even the attention of their own families."

Society will "demand to know every minute detail, and they're going to offer enormous quantities of money and popularity," he says.

And it's not just the miners who are growing tired of this media frenzy. Rodrigo Larrain says, "Everyday there is coverage, the miner a running marathon, going to Spain, dancing miners, everything, and back in Chile its starting to annoy everyone a bit."

However, President Sebastian Pinera has also taken full advantage of this rare spotlight on Chile. During his recent tour to Europe, Pinera dished out rocks from the mine as gifts. He also has intentions of turning the camp by the mine into a memorial or museum.

Ironically though, this is the same government that failed to protect Chilean miners in the first place by not establishing legislation to protect their rights.

Since being rescued, 27 of the miners have filed a $27 million lawsuit against San Esteban Mining Company who owns the notoriously dangerous copper mine.

Health and safety precautions in many mines across Chile have seen tragedies because there are no labour laws in place to protect workers' safety.

However, the international media attention surrounding the miners has pressured the government to ratify International Labour Organisation's Convention 176, which would commit Chile to enforcing safety regulations, as unions in the past have urged for.

So although the miners deserve peace to rest, they are still sacrificing this to draw much-needed attention to the real news story.

What is really special about this story is that, finally, the normal men of developing countries are given a voice to make a difference in their own countries.

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