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Chile's rescued miners growing weary of life as celebrities

Many of the men want to go back to work underground because they need the money, Philip Sherwell and Harriet Alexander report.

Many of the men want to go back to work underground because they need the money, Philip Sherwell and Harriet Alexander report.

THEY have been feted before 75,000 spectators at Old Trafford, toured the Acropolis, flown to Los Angeles as "CNN Heroes" and received celebrity treatment at Disneyland.

But perhaps most remarkably, a year after 33 Chilean miners were entombed deep beneath one of the most inhospitable spots on Earth, more than half of the men want to return below ground.

One has already done so. "I've gone back, because it's my life," said Pablo Rojas, 47. "I've been doing it from the age of 16, and I don't know how to do anything else."

Others have found that, despite the speculation that their stories of survival and rescue would make them rich, they simply need the money. Eighteen have told the Chilean authorities that they would like to find work in other mines.

"Many thought that with fame would come a lot of money, but it's not true," said Jorge Galleguillos, 57, who acts as the secretary to the miners' recently formed committee. "We have lots of expenses and our income is very small."

It was on August 5 last year that a devastating collapse at the San Jose copper and gold mine trapped "Los 33" for 69 days, half a kilometre beneath the surface of the desert.

The saga was indelibly etched into the consciousness of the world and the quirky cast of miners became famous. Their rescue after a nerve-racking 10 weeks was watched by an estimated billion people.

Upon their release, each of them received a gift of five million Chilean pesos ($A9950) donated by a mining executive. Books were written, and last week it was announced that the film rights for their collective story had been sold to the Hollywood producer responsible for the Oscar-winning film Black Swan.

But the story of what happened in the year following their rescue is almost as fascinating as the tale of their imprisonment underground.

When they were winched to the surface, the men were deluged with offers to travel the world and mingle with the famous.

Yet while they were travelling, back in Chile doctors were becoming increasingly worried that the psychological impact of their ordeal was not being tackled. In the rough, hard-drinking mining town of Copiapo, where most of the men still live, their medical team urged them to travel less and focus more on their recuperation to avoid jeopardising their long-term recovery.

Most scoffed at the concerns. "I would rather forfeit the state-provided treatment than waste the opportunity to discover other countries," said Claudio Yanez, one of the miners. But the psychological damage was becoming increasingly apparent.

Edison Pena, 35, initially appeared to be thriving on his new-found fame as "the jogger" the Elvis fanatic who, while trapped in the mine, ran several kilometres every day to keep fit.

In the months following his rescue, he ran the New York and Tokyo marathons, performed Elvis songs on the American chat show Letterman, and travelled to Graceland to cut the cake at an official Elvis Presley birthday celebration. But his fame has been marred by binge drinking and family rows.

Last week he launched an angry tirade against a national radio station over criticism of the miners.

"And if we had stayed down there? If there had only been a big cross with photos of us? Would that have been better?" he ranted. "Then you all would have been happy."

Alex Vega, 32, has alarmed his family by building a high wall around his house for no apparent reason. Victor Zamora, 34, admitted he has trouble expressing affection to his child and suffers from nightmares in which he is trapped or watching his friends die around him.

During a recent visit to the mine, he told his worried family he felt nothing but sadness. "The other me is still in there," he said.

Some have also found their physical health rapidly deteriorating. In all, 14 of the men have applied for early retirement on the grounds of ill health.

Yonni Barrios, the implausible Lothario whose wife and long-time mistress both turned up at the mine to vie for his affection, is one of three men diagnosed with the incurable lung disease silicosis, caused by inhaling the crystalline silica dust present in most mines.

But it is not all bad news and 12 months after the accident some of the miners are thriving.

In Copiapo's central plaza, Osman Araya, 31, is happily running a fruit and vegetable stall only 200 metres from that of fellow miner Dario Segovia, 49.

Both men used the gift of five million Chilean pesos to buy white vans for their businesses, and spend their days shuttling between the wholesale warehouse and their market pitches.

Luis Urzua, 55, the foreman, has become a motivational speaker having travelled to Los Angeles to accept an award. Jose Henriquez, 57, who was known as "the pastor" for his spiritual guidance in the tunnels, travelled throughout Asia preaching and led prayers at the White House for President Barack Obama.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mario Sepulveda, 41, the most ebullient of all the miners, who acted as "TV presenter" for their underground videos, has carved out a successful and varied career.

In Chile, a religious service is due to be held to mark Friday's anniversary of the mine's collapse. And on August 22, the authorities are planning a celebration in Copiapo that will reunite the 33 men.

But for all the celebrations, the fact remains that 18 of the miners have not been able to build a life away from the mine and they want to return to work.


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