SANTIAGO // With the 33 miners trapped underground in the northern Chilean desert for more than two months set to rejoin life on the surface today, one man is patiently waiting his turn to go last.
It was expected that Luis Urzua, the shift boss when the miners were trapped on August 5 in the San Jose Mine, will be the last man hauled up from the 700-metre deep cavern and emerge to the flash of cameras and the loving embrace of his family.
Though, to win the honour, he will have to once more use the authority that is credited with keeping the miners alive through the first terrifying days of their ordeal. He is just one of many who were eager to go last in what could be a two-day operation, Chile's health minister told reporters. "'I want to go last please'," Jaime Manalich recounted one of the miners as saying, at a recent news conference. "And then another guy said, 'No, my friend, I said that I was going to be the last one up'."
Mr Urzua's ability to ration out two spoonfuls of tuna, two biscuits, a sip of milk and a bit of peach every 48 hours, along with organising the men into shifts as they survived for 17 days without any word from above, has been praised by Chilean officials and citizens such as Inez Inberack, who said miners are known for their strength of spirit. "They're very strong, very strong," the 73-year-old restaurant owner in the capital, Santiago, said. "Urzua was the one who organised them. He administrated the food. If he hadn't they would be dead."
While Mr Urzua will most likely go last, in the fashion of the captain being last to abandon ship, he will have to first pass an evaluation by paramedics who were to be lowered into the mine to check the men's fitness before the operation begins. Florencio Avalos, 31, was chosen by officials to be the first to come to the surface, Agence France-Presse reported last night. As the men re-emerge in a 21-inch-wide capsule from the newly-drilled shaft, donning sunglasses to protect their eyes and green overalls, it will be to a much different life above ground than the one they knew.
This made-for-TV rescue attempt, the deepest in mining history, has been followed daily by the country and the world, and the men have become household names in Chile. Some of them have proposed to girlfriends, another's wife has given birth to the couple's first daughter - named Esperanza, or Hope - and one man's wife and mistress were reported to have met each other while praying for their loved one's survival at the makeshift campsite near the mine.
More than 1,000 journalists have flocked to the barren site in the Atacama desert, shining an intense spotlight on the individuals trapped below and their families above. After the rescue ends, questions remain as to what awaits the men. They have received media training, but no one knows how they will cope with their newfound celebrity. Contracts worth thousands of dollars for interviews and books are pending, and the men have been invited to make appearances around the world and to endorse consumer products. Hundreds of jobs have been offered. Many hope to not have to work again - at least not in a mine.
Another concern is the men's long-term health and the men have been promised six months of psychological support. Rodrigo Figueroa, a psychiatrist with Chile's Catholic University, said that although some people in such situations develop post-traumatic stress disorders, there are many effective treatments. He did not think any special psychological procedures would be needed for the men. "Most people recover well after traumatic events without any kind of treatment," Dr Figueroa, who will monitor the men's mental health in the early days after their rescue, said. "Even more, some people develop what has been known as post-traumatic growth, characterised by better psychosocial functioning, better interpersonal relationships, a deeper and more satisfactory evaluation of life and strong connection with other human beings."
Juan Vergaro Inostroia, 48, a psychologist at the municipality of Copiaopo who has counselled two families - relatives of the former celebrity footballers Franklin Lobos, 53, and Esteban Rojas, 44 - says he thinks that if the men need therapy, it will be with their families as they try to overcome the effects of "their abrupt separation from family and society". Meanwhile, 27 of the 33 workers have filed a US$10 million (Dh36.7m) negligence lawsuit against the mine's owners. A similar suit against government regulators is planned.